The Fourth of July is a terrible time for the NFL and its fans. It's a time with no games, practices or minicamps, a time with few transactions and no chatter. It's the time of idle hands, when the on-field silence makes it too easy to hear a thrumming undercurrent of violence.
We stand now in front of the sheer cliff of the Aaron Hernandez case, a story so huge and awful that it defies categorization. Hernandez, if all or most of the charges/allegations/suspicions prove to be correct, was not a football player who killed people, but a killer who sometimes played football. The portrait of Hernandez that has been painted in the last two weeks makes him look like about as much of a tight end as Charles Manson was a musician. It's terrifying, disturbing, and unique only in its scale and scope. The volcano blew last week, but there have been constant rumblings, as will happen this time of year.
Many of us -- football writers, fans and just followers of news -- spent the last two weeks waiting, as my friend Andrew Garda put it on Twitter, for "more shoes to drop" in the Hernandez case. Three Foot Locker stores and Imelda Marcos' closet landed on us within a span of 10 days or so. It was perplexing, depressing, wearying, numbing. It has been powerful enough to shake the moorings of fandom. And it is far from over.
This summer, more than any other, the thoughtful fan is faced with a serious question: How can we continue to love the NFL, when we are faced with something dark and evil every time we slow down long enough to notice it?
If it feels like something bad happens every year around this time, it's because something bad happens just about every year around this time.
Four years ago, Steve McNair was found dead, with four gunshot wounds, in a Nashville condo. His girlfriend's body lay beside him, with one wound -- a murder-suicide. The only real connections between McNair's death and the Hernandez story are the time of year and the shock. McNair was recently retired and well regarded in 2009, the kind of player who should by all rights be hamming it up on a pregame show and hosting golf tournaments these days.
McNair reminds us that NFL players are sometimes the victims of violent crimes. He was philandering, of course, but at last check, the proper punishments for that offense are divorce and alimony, not four point-blank bullets from a (presumably) jealous, misguided mistress. With a little pretzel logic and flowery prose, I could tie McNair and Hernandez together with a pretty bow, laced with fame, wealth and "the lifestyle." Doing so would trivialize both murders in numerous ways. McNair's and Odin Lloyd's murders both involved NFL players, happened in summer and were sad, sorry events. They are linked because our minds link them.
Aldon Smith of the 49ers was stabbed at a house party he hosted, early in the morning of July 1 last year. Two people were shot at the party; Smith was reportedly trying to break up a fight when he received his relatively minor wounds. When police arrived at 2 a.m., there were still some 100 people in attendance. The investigation went nowhere, because let's face it, the only people at a party at 2 a.m. are those too intoxicated to give a reliable report and those too involved to willingly offer one. No one died, apparently by sole virtue of bad aim, so this story largely has been forgotten. Last July 4 weekend, it was big NFL news in the absence of any other NFL news.
Smith was, again, a victim, though he was guilty of several flavors of bad judgment. So yes, the fame, the wealth and the lifestyle. The Hernandez case is a whole order of magnitude more disturbing. But with team headquarters quiet, there is not much else to think about except that summer is here, and the story of the NFL involves guns, knives and young men bringing danger to themselves and others.
Summer makes these stories seem bigger. Or perhaps the rush of the season makes major tragedies seem smaller. Consider Jovan Belcher. Belcher killed the mother of his child and himself last December, an act of cruelty and cowardice that he dropped literally onto the NFL's doorstep. He orphaned his child, turned Arrowhead Stadium into a crime scene, and much as you hate to admit it, you probably did not think much about him or his victim a few weeks later, did you? There are some logistical reasons for that -- a murder-suicide brings no charges, arraignments or trials to keep the events in the news -- but one big reason was that the NFL season was in full swing. The Chiefs held a memorial, we debated their decision to play a game the very next day, and then the playoffs began.
Here's a fundamental question: Did the presence of NFL games -- the swift forward gale of action and stories and spectacle -- help us heal, or simply distract us? The Hernandez case would not be engulfed by the sea of NFL news at any time during the year -- it is just too big -- but it would not occupy nine of the 12 slots on USA TODAY Sports' Top NFL Stories list, several days after the actual arrest, as it did on Friday afternoon. Do we lack perspective during the year, or do we see a distorted view of the sport during the month or so when it is not being a sport?
I don't have an answer. Nelson Mandela is on life support as I write this, and the Supreme Court has been making decisions hither and yon that will merit chapters in history books in the future, while Hernandez won't even be a footnote. We may sweep too quickly under the rug in December what we sensationalize too greedily in July. Either way, there is no "appropriate reaction" that will not feel like a punch in the stomach.
There's more, the more we dig. Josh Brent returned to prison this week. He was charged with "intoxication manslaughter" in the auto crash that killed teammate Jerry Brown last December, just a few days after the Belcher murder-suicide. Brent failed a drug test that was mandated by his bond conditions, his carelessness stupid and disconnected from the severity of his actions. Ausar Walcott, an obscure, undrafted rookie who spent a few days in Browns minicamp, punched a man in the head so hard outside a New Jersey strip club last week that the man is in critical condition. Walcott is charged with attempted murder. If we did not have Hernandez's story to bear through this weekend, we would have plenty of drunk driving and dangerous behavior to fill the police blotter and fuel "the NFL is a cesspool" discussion.
On the "victim" side of the ledger, running back Bernard Pierce was carjacked at gunpoint last week. He was the second NFL player to fall victim to auto-theft-related violence in the month of June; Steelers tackle Mike Adams suffered stab wounds while trying to stop someone from stealing his truck a few weeks ago. But recognizing that players find themselves on both sides of violence makes us feel no better about violence. It only reminds us that we are giving young men wealth beyond their dreams and watching as vultures circle, as bad influences make it their business to become worse, as (once in a great while) money turns a bad dude into a kingpin.
And yes, we are back to the wealth, the fame and the lifestyle. If those things ultimately are the problem, then we are part of the problem. No wonder we feel so bad.
We Have Seen the Enemy
This is the part where the hand-wringing intellectual speaks of "a football culture in crisis" or "the NFL at the crossroads." My hands, unfortunately, don't wring very well.
Strip away the spectacle, and the NFL has an ugly underside. Strip away the good parts of anything and what you are left with is pretty bad. Take the music out of rock 'n' roll and you get a lot of people with bad fashion sense getting paid to take drugs and act rude. Take the candy-colored videos and fashion-forward television programs out of the teenage entertainment industry and you are left with something so seedy it will make you retch. Have you seen Amanda Bynes lately?
And of course, there is more that is good and noble about football than "spectacle." People who think otherwise betray ignorance and a shockingly low opinion of both the sport and its fans.
The NFL fosters a culture of violence. It reinforces anger in young men and gives them the means to do horrible things. It also fosters a culture of cooperation, discipline, industriousness, commitment and achievement. This is an argument that has gone around and around for over a century, and there have been politicians, psychologists, university presidents, religious leaders and social philosophers on both sides of the debate. I can only add that it has been my experience -- as a boy, then a teacher of boys, then a father of boys -- that many boys want to hit other boys very hard, and they are going to do so no matter how much you encourage them to study, sing in the choir or play tennis. The best thing we can do in most cases is to pad them, supervise them and train them to slam into one another as safely as possible. Yes, a handful of those boys are the ones who are prone to grow up and do horrible things. We won't solve that problem by excluding them from activities.
You know what I blame this on the downfall of? Society. That's why the hand-wringers are here. The NFL is one of the few things universal enough in American culture to really represent American culture. Entertainment industries are splintered, politics and religion are polarized, other sports are simply dwarfed. When it comes to "mirrors on America," it's the NFL, Walmart and what else? We are always our harshest critics when we look in the mirror, and we don't always realize that the face we see is not quite the same one we really show the world.
So we can love the NFL and hate the fact that a handful of NFL players do terrible things. That is usually enough this time of year. It can get us through Aldon Smith party mayhem. It's not enough right now. Hernandez, by all allegations, was not some kid with a hot temper who had too many drinks and started throwing punches or reached into his glove box. The crimes he is accused of, or associated with, are (poorly) premeditated and (badly) calculated, and they appear to be disturbingly frequent. The connection to a shooting last July should make us particularly queasy. We were not cheering for a guy who would someday allegedly commit murder, but for an alleged murderer who showed up to work a few weeks later, as if he had just been in the backyard hammock for a few weeks.
This is not intellectual. It's visceral. We've lost some of the pleasure of fandom in the last two weeks. Those who see football as nothing but a cauldron of violence might say good riddance, but I think we owe it to ourselves to take it back.
Taking Back Football
NFL fans must strike a delicate balance. We cannot bury our heads. We cannot be Pollyannas. I don't care what he does in his free time, I just wanna watch football cuts it for drug users and guys who get into bar fights, but not for this. Football players do lots of good things, but no one reports about them is true but trite. Russell Wilson is hosting five football camps for inner-city kids in the next three weeks. He will meet 1,400 disadvantaged youngsters, offer football and life lessons, and hope. It's tremendous. Wilson's a peach. He could visit every PAL and YMCA in America, and it would not take away the sick feeling.
So how do we wash out this awful taste and settle the nausea in our stomachs? If I knew, I would not be writing this. But I do know what I plan to do.
Seek Balance. There will be a place for humor in the Hernandez story. It sounds like the case will be rich with "world's dumbest criminal" moments, and it will be my professional responsibility to identify the Kato Kaelin types who emerge, and to get whatever satirical mileage out of them that I can. There will also be a time to talk about the Patriots tight end depth chart and receiving corps. When camp comes, we will all focus on Rob Gronkowski's rehab and Jake Ballard's performance and wonder if the Patriots have slipped and by how much.
But not now. What jokes we hear are not jokes at all; they are taunts. Ha-ha, the arrogant Patriots employed a killer. Shows how much they know. "Hernandezing" (turning Hernandez's post-arrest posture and facial expression into another oh-so-funny Internet photo meme) only makes me worry that the Internet's ability to desensitize us is our biggest problem of all. Speculating about how the Hernandez arrest affects the balance of power in the AFC East is just ghoulish right now, no matter how many disclaimers we put in front of it. When we treat the Hernandez case like just another ACL tear, or another chapter in the Patriots-Jets/Patriots-Colts/Patriots-Everybody rivalry, it makes us more crass, cynical and jaded. Murderers consider the lives of others cheap. We won't make ourselves feel better, or make the world any better, by doing the same.
Own the Problem. The Hernandez case is something that probably will not happen again, perhaps for years, hopefully ever. To be clear, players will always get into last-call brawls. There will always be DUIs and domestic incidents. NFL players are humans, after all, and humans regularly commit all of those sins. But we aren't going to be coping with a premeditated murder (or murders) every six months or every July 4. We are coping with an outlier right now. That's why all the efforts to play connect-the-dots are so tinny and hollow.
No, the NFL does not have a "gang problem;" that is just ill-informed, exploitive fear-mongering. Yes, the NFL has a violence problem. AMERICA HAS A VIOLENCE PROBLEM. Our neighborhoods and high schools have a violence problem. It is not an "easy-solvable," but we know for sure that ignoring it or abandoning it doesn't help. If you want to be part of the solution, volunteer at a youth league (any sport or activity), or get involved in youth development at the town/school/church level. If you do not have the time, or you just want to feel better, keep in mind that the neighbor's kid and your nephew and the reverend's kid will start carrying their pads to practice in the summer heat in just a few weeks. These are the pool of young men the NFL draws from. If they are really tainted to the core by violence, we are in big trouble, because they are us.
Unplug. Camp is three weeks away. The NFL will still be there. Twitter and Pro Football Talk will still be there. I will be here, paws in the dirt, ready to talk about the sport we love in all of its ridiculous, bombastic, compelling and awe-striking glory. If the Hernandez case is making you downright miserable, take a week or two off from football.
Maintain Perspective. Summer tragedy is nothing new in the NFL. Thirty years ago, on June 29, 1983, Chiefs star running back Joe Delaney was at an amusement park in Monroe, La., when he noticed three children flailing in a pond that was not meant for swimming. There were many other bystanders, but Delaney was the first to try to help. The pond turned out to be 20-feet deep, and Delaney was a terrible swimmer. One child survived. The other two and Delaney drowned.
"He made the ultimate sacrifice by placing the lives of three children above regard for his own safety," Ronald Reagan said when he posthumously honored Delaney with the Presidential Citizens Award. "By the supreme example of courage and compassion, this brilliantly gifted young man left a spiritual legacy for his fellow Americans."
That was 30 years ago. Two months ago, Joe Andruzzi carried an injured woman to safety after the Boston Marathon bombings. Heroism is not something from the NFL's past, but its present and future as well.
NFL players are capable of cruelty and evil, and also of heroism and patriotism, not to mention everyday kindness and late-night foolishness, lapses of judgment and acts of charity. They can be role models, workaday citizens or cautionary tales; a disgusting handful turn out to be outright villains. NFL players can be all of these things because they are humans, and humans can be all of these things.
We are humans, too. We are repulsed by the inhumanity of the events in the Odin Lloyd murder. We hope to never be sickened so much by an athlete who plays the sport we love again, but we recognize that sorrow will always be part of the joy. Camp will come in three weeks, and the tide of little stories will pull us away from this tragedy. We should allow that, because routine heals. We must never forget what some NFL players are capable of, but we can fight the negative with the positive, grief with joy, despair with hope, and horror with humanity. Football has the power to uplift us, but that does not mean it also has to have the power to drag us down.
See you next week, when I plan to be writing about something fun.