By Alex Parrish
The sports world was stunned on April 19th at the news of the apparent prison suicide of Aaron Hernandez, the former standout tight end at the University of Florida and the New England Patriots. Hernandez was already considered an example after his conviction for a 2013 murder, but his death at age 27, days removed from an acquittal for a 2012 double murder, cements Hernandez’s tragic story in the lore of sports cautionary tales.
A cautionary tale is a moral story, constructed from the life of another or others, told to either deter people (particularly younger people) from making similar decisions or to promote rules or laws which make those decisions prohibited. In sports and sports media, cautionary tales consist of five features: 1) a talented and promising athlete, 2) success in the sport at a high level, such as personal accolades or growing wealth, 3) a crisis moment or moments, centered on a decision to do or not do something, 4) fallout from the crisis, and 5) details from family, friends, or associates which highlight the four preceding features. Unlike redemption narratives, cautionary tales end with no recovered status or return to success for the involved party.
This post will not explore the complexities of Aaron Hernandez’s life, criminal cases, or circumstances surrounding his death. Rather, I hope to use this post to examine media representations of other cautionary tales to help make sense of the current and forthcoming media stories on Aaron Hernandez. I argue that sports media constructs two types of cautionary tale narratives: victim cautionary tales and perpetrator cautionary tales. The victim tale focuses on the athlete as a tragic, guiltless casualty of a larger cultural problem. The perpetrator tale focuses on the athlete as a culpable participant in a larger cultural problem. The factors that distinguish between these types are interpreted not by the “hard facts” of the cases, but through the interpretation of cultural ethos. To demonstrate this argument, I will use two cautionary tales from basketball: the death of NCAA basketball great Len Bias in 1986 and the conviction and imprisonment of former NBA player Javaris Crittenton in 2015. I am not arguing for alternative presentations of these cautionary tales, but seek to describe how cultural ethos aids in determining the shape of the narratives.
ESPN’s documentary series 30 for 30 produced a film on Len Bias in 2009. The promo for the film asks, “What if I told you, that a ‘sure thing’ can become a ‘what if’?” Bias, of course, was the standout University of Maryland star basketball player, drafted number 2 overall in 1986 by the then-champion Boston Celtics, who overdosed on cocaine just a few days after the draft.
When Bias’s story is recounted in sports media, many of the pieces focus on his considerable talent and the lost potential for both him and the Celtics. The 1986 Celtics are considered one of the greatest basketball teams to ever play the game, and the ’87 Celtics would have seen Len Bias join Hall of Famers Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, and Bill Walton. Juggernaut does not begin to describe the potential for that team. But Bias overdosed on cocaine, and the Celtics lost the future of the franchise. Bill Walton played only 22 combined regular season and playoff games, McHale played through the playoffs on a broken foot, and the Celtics lost in the Finals to the Lakers. The franchise did not return to the NBA Finals again until 2008.
Bias’s story is generally viewed under the “victim” narrative. He was a beloved athlete, came from a “good” family, and never got into trouble. He was simply blowing off steam. And it was the ‘80s, when cocaine was everywhere. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong drug. He was a victim of his era.
Bias’s death was fodder not only for media, but politicians. His death was used as an example for the need of drug regulation and harsh convictions for “offenders”. He was the perfect anti-drug lobby example: a young, promising black man in the peak of human physical condition. If Bias could be killed by cocaine, what chance did others have? With Bias’s death came the mass incarceration of thousands of people through legislation.
But the anti-drug legislation was only possible through the victim narrative of Bias’s cautionary tale. Further, Bias’s story still stands as a victim narrative (see especially the 30 for 30 documentary). In 2009, ESPN Columnist Michael Weinreb eloquently captured how Bias’s story was saved from being just another account of “Some guy… doing cocaine”:
Over the years, we have come to expect the worst from our public figures, and there is little question, if Len Bias died today, the immediate speculation would have been unfettered. But the television news was different back then, still in the middle stages of its transition from sobriety to sensationalism. This was eight years B.O.J. (Before O.J.), and the market was not yet saturated, the cable news channels were in their infancy, and the broadcasts themselves had not been subsumed by the modern troika of scandal, cynicism and splashy graphics. An athlete’s personal life was still sketchy territory.
“I think today, it would be different,” Statter says. “We’ve seen so many of these things happen to athletes, people expect it more now. We’re so jaded now that if it’s a real medical condition, we’re almost surprised.” Also, it should be noted that we were in the heart of the Reagan era, at the midpoint of the second term of a president Time magazine put on its July 7 cover. Headline: “Why Is This Man So Popular?” As a nation – even in the wake of the January space shuttle explosion that the president blamed on “a carelessness that grew out of success” — we were generally optimistic. Iran-Contra had yet to break; a month earlier, Ivan Boesky had delivered a commencement speech during which he declared, “Greed is all right, by the way. … I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.” We maintained a certain amount of faith in public institutions, and in the notion of laissez-faire democracy that dictated the Reagan philosophy. We were in the mood to believe in dreams.
Weinreb describes the most important factor in the construction of cautionary tales: cultural ethos or zeitgeist. Bias’s victimhood was determined by cultural optimism for its brightest stars. This optimism allowed both the sporting world and the government to construct a cautionary tale from Bias’s overdose, wherein a successful college athlete of high character was robbed of his life through a poorly-informed decision to use a dangerous drug, costing his family their beloved son and a sport one of its rising stars.
Crittenton’s narrative has been nearly unanimously cast as a perpetrator cautionary tale. Crittenton, had been, according to Flinder Boyd, “a quiet Bible-touting honor roll student and much-loved son of Atlanta”. Boyd’s account, titled, “Run and Gun”, is an excellent example of how perpetrator narratives are constructed, and is particularly important because it is one of the more sympathetic pieces written about Crittenton. Before being the Bible-touting scholar, Crittenton was “rambunctious” and prone to fits of “boyish anger” (which were, for a time, funneled positively into basketball). Raised without a father, Crittenton found paternal care through dedicated coaches in the Atlanta youth basketball circuit. His basketball acumen was highlighted by getting the better of another young phenom named LeBron James during a tournament. By the end of his high school career, Crittenton was, according to a teammate quoted in the piece, “the symbol for the original Atlanta area.”
Such symbolic representation was not enough for the hometown Atlanta Hawks of the NBA, who did not take Crittenten with its eleventh pick in the 2007 NBA draft. Instead, the young star was removed from his city and, more importantly, his mentors, and went to Los Angeles to join the Lakers. Boyd hypothesizes that this may have been the start to Crittenton’s collapse. Phil Jackson was not the patient, understanding father-figure Crittenton needed. Neither was Kobe Bryant.
After being traded to the Memphis Grizzlies, Crittenton kept ties in LA and began associating with some aspiring hip-hop artists from his hometown of Atlanta. These associations, compounded with another trade to Washington and other personal hardships, culminated in a famous altercation in the Wizards locker room, where both Crittenton and All-Star Gilbert Arenas pulled handguns on one another in an argument over a game of cards. Suspended, devalued by the league, and in desperate need of companionship, Crittenton turned to his new friends, who introduced him to gang life. Boyd’s piece ends with Crittenton, in prison for manslaughter, receiving video visitations from his mother, and a former mentor, now unable to coach basketball, who wishes the whole story was just a bad dream.
As stated earlier, Boyd’s account is quite sympathetic to Crittenton, and is far from the norm of Crittenton articles. Yet, despite Boyd’s compassion, Crittenton is depicted as a sad product of his decisions, not the innocent victim of societal ills. This point is especially profound because Boyd never asserts that Crittenton pulled the trigger. His “spiral” to prison was circumstance after circumstance of harmful decisions in the face of crisis moments, such as buying a gun after being robbed, continuing association with avowed gang members, and running drugs for a dealer whose phones were tapped by feds. Boyd’s is a sympathetic, understanding perpetrator narrative, but it is a perpetrator narrative.
Other accounts are much less sympathetic. Unlike Bias, Crittenton was tied to a gang. Unlike Bias, Crittenton had previous off-the-court issues. Crittenton’s story came to a head with his manslaughter conviction for shooting a woman while participating in gang-related intimidation of a rival. A convicted killer was simple to fit into the perpetrator cautionary tale narrative for many.
But Crittenton’s actions came in the post-OJ, growing social media generation. In Weinreb’s terms, Crittenton had no benefit of public optimism, particularly towards gang members. While Bias’s death fueled drug legislation, Crittenton’s actions came during heightened action against gang and gun violence. Bias lost his life. Crittenton took a life. Crittenton is largely viewed as a product of his choices rather than his environment, or at best a sad product of both. He is considered a perpetrator.
While Bias’s and Crittenton’s stories are viewed through the lenses of well-defined cultural moments, Hernandez’s story comes in a cultural moment not fully understood. Hernandez was controversial. He was talented. He was a killer (though his conviction has been vacated, according to ESPN’s Roger Cossack and others). But he also was a father, capable of “tender” exchanges of love in a courtroom with his young daughter. He was an athlete in a sport and a league that has struggled of late with the violence of its members. He is a person of color who died in prison during a time of cultural pessimism not only towards celebrities, but even more so towards the criminal justice system and its policies and treatments towards peoples of color. Hernandez’s lawyers have continually maintained his innocence.
Hernandez has already been used as a cautionary tale. As more reports come out over the following months, Hernandez’s narrative will be written and rewritten. Already, articles have been printed that examine his sex life, possible football-related brain trauma, and allegations of drug use. Will the narrative change given the current state of pessimism towards the criminal justice system? Will the need of sport media to construct redemption narratives influence the interpretations of the details that come out in the coming weeks? Will his acquittal for double murder and forthcoming appeals for his conviction be interpreted as innocence, contributing to a victim cautionary tale narrative? These are a few questions to keep in mind while reading articles or watching stories by sports media concerning the life and death of Aaron Hernandez.
Alex is a PhD student at the Nazarene Theological College and the University of Manchester in Manchester, England. His academic interests include American religious history, Alaskan religion and culture, pop culture and religion, and sports and religion. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.