It would be a mistake to dismiss the monstrous allegations facing Aaron Hernandez as an aberration that says nothing about American sports and American society.
Aaron Hernandez, the 23-year-old former Patriots tight end who police claim orchestrated an execution, is, if the allegations are true, a natural byproduct of a culture pervasively diseased by corruption.
He is, in my eyes, a symbol that popular culture has installed Tony Soprano as America’s most celebrated and revered icon above Joe Montana.
Let me explain. For nearly two decades, I’ve been writing columns detailing the impact on the sports world of popular culture’s glamorization of prison/gangster/hip-hop culture.
There was a time when mythologized caricatures of Babe Ruth, Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron and Johnny Unitas were the most important influencers of American culture. There was nothing cooler and more respected than being a red-white-and-blue sports star. Movie stars and singers wanted to be in the company of America’s best and bravest athletes. Celebrities mimicked celebrity athletes.
Athletic culture trumped Hollywood culture.
This is no longer the case. Jay-Z, a rapper who glorifies his former life as a drug dealer, has far more cultural influence than LeBron James. Jay-Z is this generation’s Joe D, and Beyonce is Marilyn Monroe.
Al Capone is a bigger deal than Babe Ruth.
Aaron Hernandez is a reflection of where we are as a society. Like Allen Iverson and an endless plethora of fatherless and directionless modern athletes since the end of Michael Jordan’s reign, Hernandez saw his athletic gifts as a platform to represent where he was from, not where he hoped to go.
He repped the 860. He kept it real. He stayed true to his boyz from the ‘hood. He mimicked the mindset of the pop-culture icons we celebrate today.
This is what a 40-year drug war, mass incarceration, a steady stream of Mafia movies, three decades of gangster rap and two decades of reality TV have wrought: athletes who covet the rebellious and marketable gangster persona.
Hernandez is the most extreme example. He apparently moonlighted as a professional football player while perfecting his role as Christopher Moltisanti, Tony Soprano’s boneheaded nephew.
But we should not be shocked that a professional athlete possibly crossed the line into sociopathic killer. The unhealthy side effects of drug prohibition and popular culture have made murderous drug dealers respected members of American society. Random, murderous violence and the people who commit those crimes have been normalized in America, thanks in large part to popular culture.
We all loved and respected Tony Soprano. This is why James Gandolfini’s death was such a big story. We did not know Gandolfini. We knew Tony. To some degree, we all wanted to be Big T.
I am not surprised to learn that a 23-year-old professional athlete covered in tattoos is linked to several violent acts, including “accidently” shooting a man in the face. Modern athletes carry guns. They do drugs. They mimic rappers and gangster pop-culture icons.
Athletes want street cred, and they costume themselves in whatever is necessary to get it. Nike, Reebok, Adidas, etc., were the first to recognize the importance of authentic street cred when it came selling product to American youth.
There was a financial incentive for Allen Iverson not to evolve beyond his Tupac Shakur imitation.
It was only a matter of time before some athlete was accused of imitating Tony Soprano. The gangster influence in our society is that strong.
Aaron Hernandez is not Rae Carruth or O.J. Simpson. Carruth and Simpson were accused of committing crimes of passion, emotion and greed. They had motives. Hernandez is being described by police as simply violent, volatile and dangerous. He’s Joe Pesci’s character in the movie “Casino.”
This is not written to suggest that athletes of the previous generation were angels and choir boys. They weren’t. It’s written to argue that athletes of the previous generations belonged to an athletic culture that sat atop American pop culture. There was no incentive for Hank Aaron to acquire street cred. He was the gold standard.
Jay-Z is the new gold standard. The whole sports world played along with Jigga Man’s charade of NBA ownership. Now Kevin Durant and other athletes are flocking to Hova’s sports agency. An unrepentant, flamboyant former drug dealer has the White House, President Obama-stamped seal of approval.
Proving we learn nothing from our history, drug prohibition has legitimized the drug dealer the same way alcohol prohibition legitimized bootleggers (Joseph Kennedy). You let corrupt people make enough money and eventually they’ll use their wealth, power and influence to bait others into participating in and rationalizing their corrupt actions.
Bad is good in today’s society. Walter White and Marlo Stanfield are heroes. Incarcerating people for profit is a legitimate form of business. It’s this cesspool that allowed Aaron Hernandez to hide out in the open.
Hernandez did not hide who he was. He reportedly threatened Wes Welker. Matt Light, a former Patriot, made it clear in a newspaper interview he could easily see Hernandez’s character flaws. A dozen NFL franchises took him off their draft boards based on their investigation of his behavior at Florida.
When he stood in chains before a judge at his arraignment, in a white T-shirt and his arms decorated in ink, Hernandez did not look out of place. Guilty or innocent, he looked like someone who had prepared for this moment. He didn’t look like an athlete. He looked like an ex-con.
Like nearly everything else in this society, athlete culture has been hijacked by mass incarceration and the pervasive gangster culture it has produced. Mindless rebellion is not a part of sports culture. Sports culture is steeped in patriotism and the ideals and values we claim make this the greatest country in the world. It’s not by accident the national anthem is played before every sporting event.
Rappers and musicians are rebels. They look normal in prison tattoos and white Ts.
We can no longer distinguish bad from good. We no longer even aspire to be good; it has considerably less value. That’s what Aaron Hernandez represents, to me. Popular culture has so eroded the symbolic core principles at the root of America’s love affair with sports that many modern athletes believe their allegiance to gangster culture takes precedence over their allegiance to the sports culture that made them rich and famous.
Aaron Hernandez wanted to be Christopher Moltisanti more than he wanted to be Kellen Winslow. Sounds crazy until you look around and see there are 1,000 times more aspiring Kim Kardashians than Hillary Clintons.