As a blogger, I am an avid fan of reading blogs, if for no other reason than you can see so much great content and honest opinions that the mainstream media just won’t provide. The situation currently embroiling former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez is a perfect example. One of my favorites blogs is I-285 Sports Blog, which purports to be “The Sports World Through Atlanta Tinted Glasses.” In a recent piece, I-285 Sports Blog offered what I believe may be the ideal assessment of this situation. This piece hits on so many intricacies that nobody really wants to touch that it requires one of my patented Dubsism breakdowns.
To be sure, the story of Aaron Hernandez’ alleged murder of a family acquaintance will be one that sticks around for quite a while. There will be cameras at every legal proceeding, and ‘experts’ will speculate about what will happen to him every time some new information comes forward. Up until Wednesday, every time Hernandez’ photo was shown in relation to the story, it was accompanied by the logo of the New England Patriots. Now that the Patriots have released Hernandez, that will no longer be behind him. The team obviously does not want to associate their brand with an alleged murderer and possessor of illegal firearms. But the swiftness with which Hernandez was released and the circumstances of his situation will linger over the organization well into the regular season, at the very least. There will be questions asked that the team has successfully steered clear from for years by propagating the myth of ‘The Patriot Way’. No matter the outcome of the Hernandez’s legal proceedings, what does Hernandez’ employment with and release from the team really indicate about their organization?
Let’s be honest. There are two reasons why this story is going to linger like a bad smell. First, the media in this country has a need for the sensational. Nothing says “sensational” like a famous person on trial for murder. This is why the media kept associating Hernandez with the New England Patriots. Just because the team released him doesn’t mean those associations will stop, because it is the fact that he is a starter for one of the flagship teams in the NFL is why he has even the remotest bit of fame. The Cleveland Browns had a rookie linebacker arrested the same day as Hernandez, but because he was an inconsequential player on a team languishing in the backwaters of the NFL, that story has been relegated to the back pages. If you doubt that, ask yourself a question: Without searching the web for it, do you even remember the name of the Kansas City Chiefs player who murdered a woman then killed himself at the team’s facilities? I would bet at least 75% of you don’t.
But, I-285’s piece raises a very good question, and one that strikes at the heart of the second reason the Hernandez story will hang over the sports world for far too long. The question is what does the Patriots’ handling of this situation indicate about the organization? Hang on to that thought as you read; it is a critical component of this breakdown.
Unless you are a fan of the New England Patriots, you are probably annoyed by them. Annoyed by their petulant head coach, Bill Belichick, who seems to have learned how to interact with the media from Gregg Popovich (or maybe he taught him). Annoyed by their quarterback, Tom Brady, with the supermodel wife, the Ugg ads, the dirty plays, and the desire to turn the NFL into a two-hand touch league for quarterbacks. Annoyed by their owner, Bob Kraft, who complains about having one of his Super Bowl Rings swiped by a world leader and freely promulgates the notion that the Patriots are of a higher class than your standard NFL organization. Of course, this notion was debunked well before the Hernandez incident, the Patriots having signed multiple players of questionable character in the past (Donta’ Stallworth, Aqib Talib, and Albert Haynesworth, to name a few). Like any other NFL organization, the Patriots signed these athletes solely because they believed they could help them win football games. If they stayed out of trouble while employed by the team (and more importantly produced on the field), they were men who were ‘changed by the culture of the franchise’. If not, they were players with character issues who couldn’t adjust to ‘The Patriot Way’. It was a self-serving narrative spun by the Patriots to try and separate their organization from all the others. The narrative posited that they held their athletes to a higher standard and thus, were themselves an organization of higher character.
What’s really funny about the Patriots is that they were the red-headed step-child of Boston sports before their first Super Bowl win in 2001, and no matter what they do, they will never supplant the Red Sox at the top of the Boston sports food chain. Deep down in places he isn’t likely to admit, Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft knows that. Don’t forget that when he bought the team in the mid-90s, he had to threaten to move the team to Hartford, Connecticut to get a facility to replace the old Foxboro stadium. Kraft also has to know that once the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era is over, the Patriots will go back to ranking somewhere between the Boston Bruins and the New England Revolution on the Boston sports landscape.
The Patriots without a Lombardi Trophy are just on the road back to days when they weren’t just unpopular in Boston…they were absolutely fucking despised. They weren’t ignored, they were HATED. They didn’t have the championship tradition of the Celtics, nor did they have the perpetual hard-luck stories of the Red Sox, and until recently, all the inherently racist Boston fans could watch the Bruins without having to see “any of them damn spades.”
In short, Boston was more than happy to treat the Patriots like an orphaned crack baby. All during the franchise’s time in Boston, they never had a home field, they roamed like football gypsies. In 11 seasons, the Patriots’ played home games in four different venues; Nickerson Field, Harvard Stadium, Fenway Park, and Alumni Stadium all served as home fields for the Patriots. In the 1970′s the Patriots left Boston for a shit-heap of a stadium in Foxboro.
Foxboro Stadium was built functionally obsolete. It was built as cheaply as possible because nobody wanted to spend money on the Patriots. It lacked luxury boxes and most patrons had to sit on backless aluminum benches as only a small fraction of the stadium had actual seats (painted blue, red, and white near the 50-yard line). This stadium was such a joke that twice in the last 20 years, owners had to threaten to move; with a capacity of just over 60,000, it was one of the smallest stadiums in the NFL. James Orthwein bought the team from Victor Kiam in 1992, and had plans to move the team to St. Louis, but he sold the team two years later to current owner Robert Kraft.
The sainted “Mr. Kraft” then threatened to move the team to Hartford in order to get a new stadium built in Foxboro, and Patriot fans line up to blow him as if he weren’t some hopeless drunk who made going to a Patriots game an exercise in sitting in traffic for four hours to buy the most expensive tickets in the NFL. Oh, it will also cost you $40 to park in the absolute middle of nowhere to spend four hours with some of the worst crowds in the NFL. To top it all off, you will be stuck in your car for hours after the game. because nobody thought it might be a good idea to build a road better than a cattle trail to Kraft’s bucolic splendor.
This actually brings me back to the media. In this case, it is the local Boston sports media market that really shows off what dipshit Patriots fans are, because the Boston sports media is horrible. They fellate Robert Kraft because he hired a cheater and didn’t move the team. If Rob Gronkowski were black, his behavior would have gotten him run out of town regardless of production (see Mo Vaughn). Can you imagine the way Tom Brady would be treated in Boston if he were black and had the gall to marry a white super-model, considering the way they treated Joe Kapp and Jim Plunkett simply because they were Mexican? The second Brady and Belichick leave or begin to suck, all the “lifelong” Patriot fans will stop going to the games and the Pats will go back to blackouts and 4th-class sports citizenry.
That’s why the myth known as the “Patriot Way” is so important. Kraft has to keep the popularity of this team alive as long as possible, because he knows it’s going to end, and once it does, so ends the days of the Patriots as a cash cow. More importantly, once that happens, Kraft’s days as a power-broker in the NFL are likely over as well. What it all comes down to is anything which threatens the image Kraft has worked hard to create for his football team and himself will be swept under the rung with the first opportunity.
There will be attempts to compare Hernandez’s situation with Ray Lewis’ in 2000, being that Lewis is the most prominent player to be charged with murder while still playing in the NFL. Of course, Lewis had the murder change against him dropped and pleaded to a lesser charge of obstruction of justice, all the while remaining a member of the Baltimore Ravens. While the Ravens don’t have some make believe moral code governing their organization, Lewis was their best player and his on field performance would dictate that it was in the best interest of the organization to let the legal proceedings play out to see if Lewis could remain with the team. Hernandez, while a focal point of the Patriots passing game, is not nearly as important to the Patriots on field success. If you wanted a fair comparison between the two situations, the only Patriot that would qualify would be Tom Brady. Just like the Ravens would have been severely crippled by the loss of Lewis, the Patriots would be similarly devastated to lose Brady, if not more so. It is somewhat crass to postulate what might happen when a person commits a murder when there is no known evidence to indicate that the person would ever do so, but it’s hard to imagine the Patriots would immediately (if at all) release Brady like they did with Hernandez, even if he had similar charges pressed against him (to be fair, Brady doesn’t have the background of legal trouble Hernandez has, which was also surely taken into account).
I love the “What if this were Tom Brady?” angle, and not just because I raised it when pointing out the reputation for rampant racism Boston fans have. Tom Brady could have the Lindbergh baby buried in his back yard, and there’s no way the Patriots cut their ties with him. The only way the Patriots would release Tom Brady is after he was led out of the courthouse in handcuffs, having been sentenced to prison and therefore unable to play. Even then, you know Robert Kraft probably has enough juice in Massachusetts to get Brady on a work-release program so he can still play on Sundays. If you think I’m laying it on a bit thick here, read the following paragraph, which gets about a 9.7 on “hitting the nail on the head” scale.
If anything, the alacrity with which Hernandez was dispatched from the franchise would indicate that they have less character as an organization than others. The Ravens supported Lewis through his day in court. The Falcons held onto Michael Vick and announced their support for him after initial reports of his possible involvement in a dog-fighting ring. Even Rae Carruth, who wasn’t a franchise player like Vick or Lewis, wasn’t released by the Panthers until he became a fugitive, several days after murder charges against him were filed. A Patriots defender could point out that it was in those team’s best interests to hold those player’s rights, try and recover payment made to the player, and then attempt to get some compensation by trading the player to another franchise, as the Falcons did with Vick. And they could say the Patriots chose to forfeit any value Hernandez could have brought them down the road, presumably because they are not an organization that tolerates employing murderers, even only alleged ones. They could also point out that almost anyone else charged with crimes far less severe than what Hernandez is being charged with would be let go by their employer just as quickly. But this is the NFL, and the past has shown that the rules that apply to others don’t necessarily apply to professional football players, Patriots included. What happens if Hernandez is acquitted of all charges, and he’s the victim of some sort of crazy blackmail scheme? How would that reflect on the organization that has employed men who have been convicted of drug possession, domestic abuse, and gun charges. When the team released a statement that this was, “simply the right thing to do“, who was it right for, other than those who still believed the Patriots operated on some sort of higher moral code? It certainly wasn’t right for Hernandez, compared to the team’s own history of employing players who had been convicted of violent crimes.
There’s a couple of really good points in that last paragraph, the common point being Hernandez is being treated differently than other players with a checkered past who ran afoul of the law. One of those points was already addressed, that being Hernandez is not a key cog in the Patriots’ machine. Go back to the “What if this were Tom Brady?” angle for a minute, and think about would it necessarily have to be Tom Brady for the Patriots to handle this situation differently? What if it were Rob Gronkowski? He certainly meets the criteria to be considered “key,” but would his image-tarnishing frat-boy antics combined with a first-degree murder charge be enough to get the Eject button pushed? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that Robert Kraft and the Patriots’ handling of this is driven by one factor: Image.
For those of you who don’t want to believe that, ask yourself this question: Exactly why is Tim Tebow a Patriot? In the flurry of answers that could be possible, an undeniable fact is that Tebow is the perfect guy to do all that public-relations stuff like showing up at elementary schools, retirement homes and the like. Think about it…Tom Brady has bought his power, and therefore doesn’t have to be bothered with that stuff. Rob Gronkowski is too much of a party-boy for it. Even before the murder charge, Aaron Hernandez was far too “thug-life” for it.
While you are pondering about that, ask yourself another question: What if it were Tim Tebow who was charged with murder? The Patriots would cut ties with him so fat it would make make the Hernandez release seem glacial in comparison, not because he isn’t a “key” player, but because image is his entire reason for existing. Ever since Tim Tebow hit the NFL, one thing that has been consistent is everybody fawns over “what a great guy” he is. The minute he did something that shattered that image, he would no longer have value to the Patriots.
Take that thought back to the Hernandez situation. There was a moment in time last summer when the Aaron Hernandez image-building campaign was in full throat, led by none other than Robert Kraft. At a gala function last August, Hernandez laid out a $50,000 donation to the Myra Kraft Foundation, the charity named after Robert Kraft’s late wife, and a mutual admiration society broke out.
When speaking about Hernandez, Kraft said (from Yahoo! Sports):
“One of the touching moments since I’ve owned the team — knowing that this is our charitable gala tonight — Aaron came into my office, a little teary-eyed, and presented me with a check for $50,000 to go to the Myra Kraft Giving Back Fund,” Kraft told Mike Rodak of ESPN Boston. “I said ‘Aaron, you don’t have to do this, you’ve already got your contract.’ And he said, ‘No, it makes me feel good and I want to do it.’
“That made me feel good because part of the thing that we learned early on is that we have a lot of young men who come into this business, and they come from humble financial homes, and part of what we try to do is make them understand is that there is a psychic income involved in giving back both your time and your financial resources, if you can do that.”
In return, Hernandez said this:
“He changed my life. Now I’m able to basically have a good chance to be set for life, and have a good life. I have a daughter on the way, I have a family that I love. It’s just knowing that they’re going to be OK … Knowing that my kids and my family will be able to have a good life, go to college, it’s just an honor that he did that for me. He gave me this opportunity. The $50,000 to help his foundation, obviously, is basically like saying ‘thank you’ and it means a lot to me.
“He didn’t need to give me the amount that he gave me, and knowing that he thinks I deserve that, he trusts me to make the right decisions, it means a lot. It means he trusts my character, and the person I am, which means a lot, cause my mother, that’s how she wanted to raise me. They have to trust you to give you that money. I just feel a lot of respect and I owe it back to him. Not only is it $50,000, cause that’s not really, that’s just the money that really doesn’t mean much, with the amount given, it’s more, I have a lot more to give back, and all I can do is play my heart out for them, make the right decisions, and live life as a Patriot.”
After reading that, you know that Robert Kraft had to have blown a gasket when the murder story broke, because Aaron Hernandez just made one of the most powerful men in the NFL look like an absolute idiot. You don’t have to be charged with a major felony to discover a quick way to get fired is to embarrass your boss. Go up to your boss and de-pants him in front of the rest of the office, and see how long it takes for you to be escorted off the premises. The reason embarrassing your boss gets an express ticket to Fired City is because his image has been destroyed; from that day forward everybody will remember the time he got his pants yanked down around his knees.
If that weren’t enough, there’s an even uglier reason why Aaron Hernandez is being treated differently. Nobody wants to admit this, but Boston is one of the most racially divided cities in this country. Another thing nobody wants to admit is that if you said the words “Hispanic Gangster” to the average guy on the street, they are going to picture a guy who looks a lot like Aaron Hernandez, complete with the shaved head and the tattoos. You can’t tell me that a guy who is as image-conscious as Robert Kraft isn’t aware of that. Am I saying Robert Kraft is a racist? Absolutely not. But he knows there is a full deck of cards in play here, and he is smart enough to know the “race” card is in that deck, especially in Boston.
Granted, Hernandez has a checkered legal past involving issues with guns and drugs, and the Pats may know more about the details of the investigation than what has been publicly released. But that really tells you everything you need to know about ‘The Patriot Way’. Hernandez was a Patriot solely because he helped them win football games, not because the team had molded his character to a certain standard, as was previously implied. ‘The Patriot Way’ is just an Al Davis or Tiger Woods mantra in disguise. No one can say that the Patriots haven’t been successful at winning football games, and that (along with selling tickets) is ultimately their goal. But when organizations have the audacity to promote themselves as ethically superior, they had better be aware of the potential for those to call them out for hypocrisy if and when it is proven inaccurate. Look what happened to Penn State after decades of promoting ‘The Great Experiment’. Look what happened to Tiger Woods after being marketed as a dedicated husband and father. The Patriots will probably continue to win games, and to some degree that will cause people to disassociate them from the Hernandez saga. They just can’t expect ‘The Patriot Way’ to continue to mean something it doesn’t.
It’s really hard to ignore the fact that if the “Patriot Way” wasn’t just a bunch of lip service, guys like Aaron Hernandez would have never worn the Patriot uniform in the first place. I love the fact that I-285 likens the “Patriot Way” to an “Al Davis mantra,” because it really means “Just Win, Baby.” The fact this all comes down to sloganeering is yet another example of how this is really all about image. The examples cited in that last paragraph further bear that out.
So, let’s go back to I-285’s original question: What does the handling of the Aaron Hernandez situation say about the New England Patriots as an organization? I believe it says as goes Robert Kraft, so go the Patriots, which is to say they are both on a road paved with hypocrisy.