In his death, as in his life, the remarkable double standard endures.
Aaron Hernandez was the 27th inmate to kill himself in Massachusetts state prisons since 2010, and the second this year. But for most of us, his suicide is the only one that registers.
Our prisons have a long and pathetic history of failure when it comes to protecting suicidal inmates. Is every one of those lost lives as valuable as the one Hernandez ended on Wednesday morning? Or is his somehow worth more, the inability of corrections officials to recognize a suicide risk more worthy of investigation in his notorious case?
And what of the lives prosecutors said Hernandez took? In the near-constant coverage that began on Wednesday morning, many have lamented Hernandez’s death as the tragic end to his heartbreaking story. Here is tragic, and heartbreaking: Odin Lloyd, a man whose family adored him, a man who thought the NFL player was his friend, went out one June night in 2013 with Hernandez and never came back. And this: A year earlier, Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, two hard-working immigrants who rarely went out, were murdered by somebody in a car Hernandez was riding in, after the tight-end apparently decided they had shown him insufficient respect in a club.
Last week, mystifyingly, a jury acquitted the former Patriots player in those two murders. We’ll never know whether his fame played a role in that verdict.
Think of the wasted potential of those stolen lives, waste every bit as meaningful even though these men lacked the accident of birth, the athletic gifts, that led to a $40 million football contract. Think of the people who loved those victims and who will never see them again, long familiar with the grief by which Hernandez’s mother, brother, and fiancee are now engulfed.
Imagine living in that world, and somehow managing to summon the grace shown by Daniel Abreu’s 61-year-old father, Ernesto, reflecting on Hernandez’s death just days after learning that no one will be held responsible for his own son’s murder.
“I’m not happy about his death; it’s actually a shame, any loss of life is a shame,” he said.
Any loss of life is a shame. But some are more of a shame than others. The mothers of countless poor, black, brown, troubled, unphotogenic, non-famous murder victims can tell you that. If Odin Lloyd hadn’t been murdered by Hernandez, his death would barely have registered. If Hernandez hadn’t been accused of killing Furtado and de Abreu we would probably have forgotten their names, too, if we’d ever known them at all. Their lives mattered because Hernandez’s mattered much more.
A series of coaches looked past clear signs that Hernandez was trouble. They gave him the benefit of doubt over drug use and other character flaws, when other kids who had done those things would have been cast aside.
Even now, the NFL has an alarmingly high tolerance for inexcusable behavior. Free agent Adrian Peterson brutally beat his 4-year-old son with a tree branch, yet teams are still considering the longtime Vikings running back. Adam “Pacman” Jones has had repeated run-ins with the law, including arrests for attacks on women, yet the Bengals keep him on. It would take too long to list all of the domestic abusers who are still pulling down millions playing for the NFL.
The league has its limits, though. For example, former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick appears to have been blackballed for taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racial inequality, including the unjustified killings of black men by police officers. It appears that hurting women is more consistent with the league’s All-American image than making a constitutionally protected political statement.
When it comes to weighing morally reprehensible behavior, winning matters way too much.
“Winning has superseded everything else, to the point where we’ve lost the moral rudder,” says Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University.
‘Winning has superseded everything else, to the point where we’ve lost the moral rudder.’
The phenomenally gifted Hernandez was a winner, and that fact blinded those who might have helped him — or stopped him — to his brokenness. If winning wasn’t all, Lloyd, de Abreu, and Furtado might be alive today.
And, just maybe, Hernandez might have been saved, too.Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.