Aaron Hernandez was found guilty of first-degree murder on Wednesday, and this did not exactly come as a surprise, except maybe to those who seem to have a limited understanding of the American legal system. There was some concern, as his trial ended and deliberations stretched for roughly a week, that a hung jury might result, but in the end, the jurors wound up literally laughing out loud about the preponderance of evidence against Hernandez.
Soon, Hernandez will be tried for double-murder, even though he’s already been sentenced to life in prison. If those charges against him are proven (or even if they aren’t), it’s not difficult to develop a picture of Hernandez as a sociopath who just happened to be very adept at playing tight end in the National Football League. And most reasonable people should be able to separate these two facts; most reasonable people should be able to recognize that one athlete’s behavior is not indicative of anything about an entire sport, or what it represents, or how we view it in the 21st century.
Except this is not just any sport we’re talking about; this is the National Football League, and the fact that Hernandez played for a so-called “model” franchise, that he was vetted by a number of smart men before he was drafted, that he committed this murder while also playing a sport that is plagued by philosophical questions about the violence inherent to its very existence – all of this means that Aaron Hernandez can easily be fit into a pattern. And so the entire Aaron Hernandez saga will now be piled on to the litany of problems the NFL faces, the questions of ethics (both among the league itself and the Patriots franchise), and the larger existential question about whether the NFL can somehow manage to mitigate the brutality of a sport that is predicated on nasty collisions and barbarous wars of attrition.
This is the issue the NFL faces: It is a terrifyingly ferocious sport to watch, a sport that wears down its practitioners in both body and mind. It’s not unfathomable to imagine that a professional football player will commit (presumably accidental) manslaughter on a football field sometime in the next five years. And so when that viciousness carries off the field, people are going to notice and assume that this violence cannot be turned off. There is some question as to whether domestic violence rates in the NFL are higher than in the general population, but because it’s football – because it is the American pastime, because it is so inherently brutal and because the NFL so badly botched the Ray Rice investigation – those arrests will now be scrutinized. (And maybe this is not a bad thing; already, the NFL’s domestic violence issue has called attention to the problem in new and different ways.)
Obviously, the Hernandez case exists in its own perverse and disturbing orbit. Hernandez seems to have been deeply troubled; he appears to have lied repeatedly, and he appears to have, at some point, shed any regard for human life. He is not indicative of anything specific about pro football, but as the sport wrestles with its future, every violent incident that surrounds it only contributes to the notion that football itself might be more of the problem than we realize.
I’m still not sure that’s true; from a selfish perspective, I hope to hell that it isn’t, that the sport can find a way forward that keeps it from tipping into ruthlessness. I don’t think, in the end, that there are more sociopaths in the NFL than there are in the general population. But I’m not sure how a league that predicates itself on violence can separate itself from the notion that this violence can never be fully mitigated.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb