No One Knows

Aaron Hernandez is under suspicion at the moment. But his whole life is still a mystery.
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Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft has recently exposed himself as potentially prone to hyperbole. This is maybe something to bear in mind in recalling a story Kraft told a story about Aaron Hernandez from last August, after the young tight end received a hefty contract extension.

“[It was] one of the touching moments since I’ve owned the team—knowing that this is our charitable gala—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 said Monday night at the Patriots Charitable Foundation Kickoff Gala in Foxboro. “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.’”

The entire article reads like a bad action movie straighten-up-and-fly-right monologue from a Michael Bay flick. It’s the type of thing that will inspire certain Boston-based keyboard-mashers to make gastrointestinal noises come out of their computers about morality—something about which they harbor no particular expertise beyond having watched large, wealthy men play games for 30-someodd years—and also the type of thing that will make some people downright sad. The article pinpoints various possibilities about how much Aaron Hernandez may have been struggling with getting out of his old world and how much he may have been struggling with who he is as a person, and perhaps most devastatingly highlights how much we simply don’t know about him, or any athlete.

“He changed my life. Now I’m able to basically have a good chance to be set for life, and have a good life,” Hernandez said of Kraft and his new contract. “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. Because I was happy playing for my $250,000, $400,000 (salary). 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.”

All of what Hernandez said there is true, and was probably true to him when he said it. What has happened since—over this last week of suspicion and revelation and intense but unproductive media scrutiny, all corrosive and ugly in their own various ways—has conspired to make it seem false. We still don’t really know anything about any of it.

***

The identity theorist Derek Parfit has posited that, at any given moment, we could become someone completely different and no one would ever have the slightest clue, because identity is completely internal. Even for identity theory, a field prone to primary assists from narcotics, Parfit’s is renowned as a particularly batshit theory. As I once explained in an undergrad philosophy course while the football players slept in the back of the room, although Parfit likely meant this literally, the most charitable interpretation of this is a little less strict, and gets at a much more pertinent question. Over the course of time, and sometimes a much shorter period of time than we like to admit, we can—and often do—become entirely different people. Our habits, mannerisms, personalities and viewpoints change entirely. What still makes you you? Or, more generally, what makes—and keeps—anyone anyone?

We have a flawed perspective of who athletes are, as you almost certainly know. We don’t know them as people, and you probably know this, too. They’re well-compensated Roman gods who trot onto a playing field every so often, perform physical feats the likes of which you and I and everyone else harbor no mental capacity even to envisage; we watch, and in so doing generate the revenue that pays them. And then they go home and we stop learning about them as people. This is an old and mostly successful way of doing this thing.

Lots of this is controlled. The leagues generally don’t want us to get to know their players—the labor and the product for sale—as people; the logic, maybe, being that the better we know them as humans the less inclined we might be to idolize and emulate and spend money on looking and acting exactly like them. (I tend to believe in the opposite theory: the more you can see someone’s flaws, the more you can appreciate their humanity, particularly when their strengths are other-worldly. But I also buy kickers’ and backup tight ends’ replica jerseys.)

Whatever the reasoning, the end result is that we never get to know athletes, really. We just think we do. We see them do a specific touchdown celebration where they make it rain and we think this provides some kind of insight into their personality. This is clearly a silly thing to think, but we think it because it’s the only evidence we have. Call this the under-the-lamppost bias: we look for evidence of who athletes are based on what we can actually observe, ignoring the fact that we can’t see 99.9 percent of what they do and who they are. We know their back-of-the-card facts and on-field tics and maybe some gilded, glossy profile anecdotes and believe we know them. This is flawed for a lot of reasons, but it may be flawed for a much more fundamental reason.

You may recall the instant you realized your favorite sport’s draft class was your age, you hurriedly wiped the Cheetos dust from your fingers and face, calculated you had accomplished comparatively little with your life and considered how you could fix that by the time the draft ended, only to recognize there was no such possible way and resumed eating your Cheetos. (You may have also tweeted about this early-life crisis, if it was recently enough.) As it turns out, Aaron Hernandez and I are both 23 years old. I spent the last year of my life trying to figure out who I am and who I want to be, in the most fundamental way.

This is not a novel thing for 23-year-olds to do, but it felt and maybe was significant, and was not easy. Aaron Hernandez, if only because he lived his 24th year on earth in public and on television, probably did not have that luxury. He was busy playing football, making lots of money doing so, starting a family, buying a house, tenuously being an adult. It takes time to learn who you are, and, through the College-NFL-Industrial Complex, Aaron Hernandez almost certainly did not have the time to reflect on that.

This doesn’t absolve Hernandez of any of the things he may or may not have done, or of which he has been kinda-sorta semi-accused. But it seems reasonable enough to acknowledge that the public and stunted and strange nature of his life might explain at least some of his decision-making.

***

I don’t know Aaron Hernandez, or what it’s like to be Aaron Hernandez. I can’t stress that enough. I’ve led a very different life than him, despite some coincidences. We are the same age, as you now know. I also grew up in Connecticut, but I grew up in Fairfield County, and he grew up in Bristol, two very different places. We have the same first names, but that’s a coincidence. All of it is a coincidence.

All of this is to say, for a bunch of happenstances of the universe, when he got drafted by my favorite team, I instantly felt an irrational connection to him. I wanted to pretend I knew him. But if in an alternate-universe sort of way, I had gotten drafted by the Patriots and Hernandez was sitting in a dorm room watching me celebrate, he would have been watching a young man who had no idea who he was, and probably would have found himself to be someone completely different two years later. This is just the way growing up works.

“I called [my family] and told them obviously what the contract was, and the basics about it. They were all crying; I was crying right with them. This is probably one of the best days of my life,” [Aaron Hernandez] said. “I’ll remember this day forever. I just hope I keep going, doing the right things, making the right decisions so I can have a good life, and be there to live a good life with my family.”

I have been following the recent news with much attentiveness—and trying not to get bummed about it because I don’t know Hernandez, and even if I did he’s not the one who’s dead. In doing that, I’ve been thinking repeatedly of Parfit’s theory; that we can turn into drastically different people and no one would ever notice. Is this Hernandez being someone completely different, or is this him being who he was all along? Did he simply always know the right things to say and do in front of the press, or was this truly a cruel misstep as he was trying to form a new life for himself in a well-to-do Massachusetts suburb, away from a difficult early life and old choices and everything else?

The important question, which might help sort all this out, is the unanswerable one: who is Aaron Hernandez? Is he the smiling, jovial tight end who donates to charities out of an inherent sense of duty and soul-deep gratitude? Is he the violent, bullying, conniving figure who has emerged in little ugly details over the last week? Or, and this seems maybe more likely, is he not quite anything yet, a person still trying to figure all that out?

I wish we had been right, and Hernandez was truly the grown man who wanted the new start. I hope we are still right, even as the circumstantial evidence mounts to the contrary. But it seems like Hernandez is stuck in a Parfit-esque void, an identity-less existence, still trying to figure out the person he really wants to be; some of this is him, and some of this is the age he is (we are) and most of it is unknowable. Most of all, because it’s actually something you and I can control, I wish we would stop guessing who these people we don’t know are. We know them as athletes, and nothing more. It’s not much. The rest, maybe, we don’t need to or want to or could ever really know.


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