Wednesday, April 19, 2017

SAD AND UNUSUAL


Aaron Hernandez is dead, a suicide hung in his jail cell. That is a great sadness for his family and those close to him. It is all but unique in the annals of murderous and criminal sports figures protected by jock privilege that often even trumps wealth and white skin.

I am not going to rehash the specifics of Mr. Hernandez's crimes here. Those specifics aren't the point. What is the point and what no one will ever hear in the postmortems for Hernandez's life and career is the privilege that allowed him to feel that he was above the law and, like O. J. Simpson, nothing, even murder, would have consequences for him.

As a society we do some crazy things, few crazier than the way we treat exceptional athletes. We take young men, usually when they are still in elementary school, and begin grooming them for a possible professional career. We ignore the injuries they receive unless those injuries are "career ending" in that they impair the child's ability to move quickly and with great agility. If the injury is to the player's brain we don't care until and unless it manifests itself as physical impairment. Among the relative few with exceptional ability who make it out of high school, colleges recruit based on athletic ability and set up programs that keep athletes at an ostensible academic level that allows them to continue to play. Despite highly touted rules to that claim to prevent academic fraud, no college with a high level star player is going to allow him or her to fail courses regardless of how richly he deserves that failure. At the same time that the college is looking out for its star player the alumni and sports agents are looking out for him as well. That player gets perks that beggar anything afforded the greatest academic stars. Worse yet the local police and fans in business are there to coddle the player by overlooking his misbehavior. In protecting the player from consequences of infractions large and small both the academic institution's officers and local fans are complicit.

After a college career comes the draft for the professional sports teams. If this player has reached the highest level of performance agents and teams compete for his attentions by throwing money and perks at him or, far less frequently, her. So you have a person of age 21 or 22 lionized by all in his circle, protected from all negative consequences of his or her bad actions to whom suddenly fabulous amounts of money are offered. Toss 10 or 20 million dollars at a 21-year old and is it really so surprising that this person should get involved in drinking, drugs or even drug dealing? If the player has never had to face the consequences of his or her acts is it really surprising that he should molest children, commit murder or engage in horrific acts of domestic violence?

I have just listened to some people who know better pontificate about Aaron Hernandez's case claiming that, poor Aaron could never quite escape the bad influences in his life from Bristol, Connecticut where he grew up. I have some familiarity with Bristol, Connecticut. There are bad influences in Bristol but no more nor less than there are in any city of its size in any of the old industrial cities of the northeast and mid-west. Foisting the blame onto Bristol or Hernandez's friends from home is simply another way of avoiding the essential question of whether we are not creating the O. J. Simpsons. Aaron Hernandezs and Jerry Sanduskys along with a host of others by the essential way in which we treat sports stars. Until we address jock privilege and the institutionalized programs for creating it we will see many more such cases. What is unusual about Aaron Hernandez's case is that he had the decency to hang himself rather than loudly protest his unlikely innocence in the face of proven guilt.

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