From hero to zero
Accused murderer Hernandez was a fan favourite but his spectacular fall from grace begs the question: why do we idolise people we hardly know?
Robert Kraft claims he was duped, though the owner of the New England Patriots seemed to have plenty of warnings before taking tight end Aaron Hernandez in the 2010 NFL draft. The fact Hernandez was left untouched by other teams until midway through the fourth round despite his obvious physical skills was one. So was an incident while Hernandez was at the University of Florida, when the 17-year-old allegedly refused to pay for two drinks at a bar and then sucker-punched an employee who tried to collect.
And then there was a psychological profile from a scouting service widely distributed among NFL teams that ranked him on the bottom of the scale for social maturity and indicated there could be problems ahead. "Hernandez's ... responses suggest that he enjoys living on the edge of acceptable behaviour and that he may be prone to partying too much and doing questionable things that could be seen as a problem for him and his team," said the report by Human Resource Tactics.
If Kraft was duped, so were fans who shelled out US$100 for a No 81 jersey. They didn't have access to psychological profiles, didn't know much about Hernandez other than he was a big tight end with soft hands.
They loved him because he could catch touchdown passes, and they cheered before last season when he was given a new US$40 million contract to be Tom Brady's biggest target.
Now Hernandez sits in jail, charged with a murder portrayed in court documents as a cold-blooded execution. He has pleaded not guilty to the charge. He's also being investigated in connection with a double killing in Boston last year involving a car rented in his name.
Millionaire sports hero one day, just another inmate the next. There may never have been such a spectacular fall by an active player.
Last weekend, the Patriots held an event for fans to exchange their Hernandez jerseys for others. The conversations on the drive to the stadium must have been awkward. How do you tell a kid that the athlete he or she idolised - whose name was stitched across their back - is an accused killer?
There are other conversations that should be just as uncomfortable: How can parents promote hero worship of athletes when they know so little about the person in the uniform? Why are we so quick to idolise someone based simply on their ability to throw or catch a ball?
Hernandez is, of course, innocent until found guilty. That's a basic tenet of the US legal system, and sometimes things aren't always what authorities say.
But the account of semi-pro player Odin Lloyd being lured to an early-morning car ride and then shot to death at what was supposed to be a bathroom stop is chilling. So is the police narrative of Hernandez's reaction when they asked him later about a body being found nearby. They said he didn't ask who died. "What's with all the questions?" police said Hernandez asked before shutting the door on them. He returned with his lawyer's business card, but didn't respond when police told him they were investigating the death.
This isn't just another NFL player arrest, something we've become accustomed to over the years. This is uncharted territory, as evidenced by the way Kraft and the Patriots handled it.
Criticise them for signing Hernandez in the first place, sure, but within 90 minutes of his arrest they cut him despite knowing they'd have to take a hit on the salary cap. His locker was quickly cleaned out, and they further washed their hands of him with the jersey trade-in.
"What we've generally seen in the past when athletes run afoul with the law, teams generally stick with their stars especially through the legal process like the Ravens did with Ray Lewis," said Ramsey Poston, a crisis communication expert who heads Tuckahoe Strategies, a public relations firm in Denton, Maryland. "This is a very different move, one that suggests that the organisation takes its reputation very seriously."
The Patriots should have quit there, but Kraft then said Hernandez seemed like a nice enough guy. Respectful, likable, he even gave Kraft a cheque for his late wife's charity after signing a new contract.
Maybe Kraft didn't read the psychological review, though it hardly matters. Because in football - in all sports, really - the urge to win trumps everything and teams with the most talented players win more than others.
It's why baseball teams reward known steroid users with fat new contracts, and why players such as Pacman Jones keep getting chances in the NFL. Indeed, Hernandez was a winner on the field, helping the Patriots get to their last Super Bowl, where he caught a touchdown pass and led the team in receiving yards.
Sometimes, though, there's a price to pay for putting winning ahead of everything.
Fans, meanwhile, probably won't give it a second thought except to ponder who the Patriots might find to replace Hernandez. Not their fault he was drafted by the team, certainly not their fault he was charged with murder.
Besides, when it comes to hero worship, there's always another player. And, of course, another jersey to be had.