By Jason Keidel
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When the New England Patriots cut Aaron Hernandez it seemed a prudent thing to do, considering his alleged proximity to a murder, whether he committed it or covered it up.
But the building celebration, collective applause and the media making a Gregorian chant over the obvious move became too much to remain mute.
Spare us the sanctimonious chorus. When did the suddenly pious Patriots become the beacon of justice?
Let’s be honest, the Patriots’ sense of honor is commensurate to their ability to win without the splash of sin on their logo. Out of nowhere, the Patriots are instantly and eternally regal because they released Hernandez. Am I the only one who remembers that they also drafted Hernandez and gave him a $40 million contract extension last year? Where was the righteousness when they forked over that $12 million signing bonus?
The clothing drive was a nice touch. The Patriots allowed anyone with a No. 81 jersey to swap it for something and someone far more palatable. It was a wise public-relations tango, but not the result of some moral spell cast by the high priest of hoodies. Bob Kraft and Bill Belichick, the king and prince of the Patriots, did this to cover themselves as much as uncover the truth.
The Patriots took a chance on Hernandez and got burned. That’s fine. All teams do the same on some level. Even my beloved black and gold, the Pittsburgh Steelers — perhaps the most adored and revered franchise in football — have dealt with dirty goods on occasion. Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes are hardly Papal candidates. Neither are Albert Haynesworth, Chad Johnson, Randy Moss and Corey Dillon, who are all dubious characters whom the Patriots have given the ever-exclusive “second chance” that’s afforded to those with special physical prowess.
This doesn’t make Bob Kraft a bad person or owner. For all we know, he’s a swell chap and a great boss. But he is not these things because he cut Hernandez. Is he now Mr. Rogers because he held a three-man presser in his office, where he called all the shots and contours of the dialogue? Kraft said he and his club were “duped” — well, they’re not the only ones.
Hernandez was a creep when the Patriots drafted him, and they knew it. Why else would someone of his obvious and abundant talent get passed over until the fourth round of the draft? He’s got the skill and will of a top-ten pick. Teams far less talented and virtuous as New England heeded the red flags and looked the other way when his name popped up on the draft board.
New England took his talent over his legal and moral disposition. Since he was a teen, it seems Hernandez interpreted the law with a very liberal lens. So be it. Just stop pretending they didn’t know it. And don’t insult our intelligence by claiming some sagacious high ground by doing what any team would have done.
It’s an inherently American error to confuse victory with virtue. We assume someone is good because he’s gifted, that a team adheres to high standards because of their place in the standings. In truth, the Patriots have been a model franchise largely because of their franchise quarterback.
If not for the serendipity of a sixth-round draft pick over a dozen years ago, New England doesn’t ride Tom Brady’s brain and arm to five Super Bowls, winning three. If you don’t think Brady is that vital, try finding another team with multiple rings sans a stellar quarterback. The ancient cliche says that it’s better to be lucky than good. The Patriots have been both, but it took a draft in the dark and a Mo Lewis shoulder into Drew Bledsoe’s lung to reach the peak.
It has become convenient for Patriots apologists to blame Urban Meyer for the problem. The former coach/warden of the Florida Gators and Belichick’s BFF recommended the imprisoned tight end, despite a rap sheet that made Avon Barksdale blush.
Sure, Meyer ran a de facto halfway house in Gainesville, where upwards of 40 players were arrested during his reign. But he is no more responsible than Tim Tebow. No one who coached, taught or mentored Hernandez in any way forced, or even nudged him in this galling direction. Surely even the most jaded Partiots/Gators/Hernandez devotees agree on this.
Even those of us who still regard football with childlike myopia realize that the NFL is a business, and Hernandez is bad for business. And that’s why New England cut him. Just stop telling us that they operate above the rest of us, on some moral prerogative that only the enlightened understand. We get it. There’s good people, bad people and patriots, and the Patriots get burned.
The Hernandez story, tragedy, horror and parable has all the flavors to sooth our ravenous, voyeuristic palate. Those of us who can’t get enough of it should perhaps question our own motives. I know I should. A man is dead and we don’t care. Instead, we care more about dead fathers and father figures and flipped witnesses and missing weapons.
But at least we don’t pretend to be elite, preening from a perch of moral authority. Many in the media would have you believe that wearing the Patriots uniform not only imbues you with special athletic splendor, but also biblical virtue.
They are human. All too human. We need to stop crowning the Patriots when there’s been no crowning achievement.
After all, they employed Hernandez. Even gave him a raise. Until they didn’t.
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