Saturday, June 29, 2013

Guilt By Six Degrees of Association

Back in the 1990s at the Herald, there was a murder. An in-house murder. One of the printers or pressmen or members of one of the paper's now vanished 19th century craft unions shot and killed a co-worker.

As it turned out, the killer was an ex-con who'd served time on a federal beef and had shot the co-worker, a real nice young man from Charlestown, for complaining to a superior about the killer being a goof-off. The killer had a relative who was a wheel in whatever union it was, which explains how he came to be at the Herald in the first place.

As it further turned out, the cops cracked the case in about 36 hours, as the killer was no Napoleon of crime.  His magic plan for getting away with it involved wearing a gorilla mask when he did it. Surprisingly, this did not prevent his almost instant identification by witnesses and forensic science.

Everyone at the Herald, me included was shocked, appalled and, we must admit, fascinated (hey, it's a tabloid) by this dismal sequence of events, whether we knew the parties involved or not. Since the Herald had a great many employees at that time, almost all of us didn't. Those emotions, however, didn't include the slightest sense of personal or institutional responsibility. None of us up in sports thought the murder had anything to do with us and the product we produced. Neither did anyone else at the paper as far as I know.

The killer was duly convicted and sent to MCI-Cedar Junction, where I trust he remains today. The Herald absorbed the tragedy and went on. Months later, its only impact on life there was the new and illogical security requirement that we show our company ID when entering the building through the parking lot.

Anyone who thinks I'm drawing a parallel with recent events in New England sports is of course correct. The Herald murder came to my mind the moment the authorities arrested Aaron Hernandez for the murder of Odin Lloyd. The similarities are glaring, especially the vicious ineptitude of each crime. The similarities lead me to make a small forecast as to the impact Hernandez's alleged crime and subsequent trial will have on the Patriots organization: next door to none and rightly so.

There was no collective guilt at the Herald. There was no reason for it. Yes, it would have been infinitely better if the killer had never become an employee. But human resources, not to mention the science of psychology, has yet to develop that "identify future murderer" personality test. For internal political reasons, the paper took a chance on an at-risk employee. The risk happened. That's an error. You could even call it a big fuck-up. But it wasn't an immoral decision requiring guilt or identification with the crime itself.

For myself, I was sorry the murder happened, of course. Disgusted, even. But to say it caused me a moment's qualm, let alone lost sleep, would be a lie. Doesn't when I think of it now, either. I expect and hope the Patriots will go through the same emotional sequence. The players, coaches and entire franchise are in unsettling proximity to an awful crime. But they're not connected with it.

To say that the Patriots are somehow morally linked to the death of Lloyd because they drafted Hernandez is insane even by the very low standards of 2013 sports discourse. NFL scouts are no more adept than psychologists at forecasting murders. The Pats knew Hernandez was an at-risk employee based on his behavior at the University of Florida. Not that kind of risk, though, just the usual "this kid engaged in knucklehead behavior" risk. For the external reason of winning football games, the organization's stated purpose, they took the risk. It blew up in the most horrible and spectacular way imaginable.

Call that a blunder. Call it a fuck-up even. Just don't bring morality into it. Don't make an ethical fool of yourself by attempting to meld Randy Moss' tendency to take some plays off with a murder.

Misjudgment is not the same as misconduct. The Patriots judged Hernandez, particularly when they gave him that big contract extension, by the same standards most human beings use to judge others, by what they saw. They saw a player who worked hard and did well. Pro football players spend most of their time at the office. How natural to assume Hernandez was therefore doing well in that minority of his life reserved for personal matters.

Natural and as it turns out incorrect. But since few if any of us can imagine the people we know, even slightly, as murderers, it's wrong to kick the Pats for the lack of imagination we share with them. It's a survival trait. If everybody went around thinking everyone else they met might be a killer, there could be no society at all. And I'm not sure a sports franchise which made a point of conducting 24/7 surveillance of its players would have many fans, or players for that matter.

There's a widespread misconception about the so-called Patriot Way, one that the franchise itself, in another blunder, has allowed to thrive and even fertilized rather than pulling it out like the weed it is. That Way is not the Boy Scout Oath. It's about football. It's credo is that when a player becomes a Patriot, doing what's required to win is the Prime Directive, and there are no other directives. In the view of Bill Belichick, keeping all contact with the outside world nice and quiet is part of what's required to win. It's just not as big a part as blocking, tackling or catching touchdown passes.

It would be most unfair to say that Patriot Way and "Just Win, Baby" are the same idea. But they're blood relatives, and we all ought to be adult enough to know that. Pro football is a business of risk. Players risk the near certainty of impaired health and shortened life in return for riches and the indescribable, addictive rush of victory. A business of risk is bound to have plenty of at-risk employees, however hard it tries to avoid them.

What are the morals of the Hernandez story? They're things we all know already. Human beings are capable of anything. It's hard to predict what that anything might be, since they themselves don't know beforehand. It's real easy to screw up a life beyond repair no matter how great said life looks on the outside.

What is the moral for Patriots fans? You follow a team in a morally ambiguous business -- meaning it's like every other business. And you root for a team capable of human error with the worst of consequences, even if the consequences aren't their fault.

You root for a team of human beings.


At 12:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very well said.

At 6:49 AM, Blogger Rich said...

Best piece yet anywhere on the sorry attempts by the media to blame the Pats for this.

At 10:32 AM, Blogger baze said...

Thank You. This speaks to the one thing that most of the press seems to have ignored--that no team, nor its scouts, or its coaches, is prescient. They look at a guy's performance, AND his behavior and make a judgement of anticipated contribution to the team.

I'm sure that when he was drafted, Hernandez got some version of the "You're a Patriot now, and have a legitimate shot at the playoffs and Super Bowl every season; we expect you to behave professionally and do your job, and if you excel we will reward you..."

Some guys get that, and see that they have perhaps a ten-year opportunity to be rewarded beyond their dreams doing what they love at the highest levels. Some, like Hernandez, don't. I blame him, not my team.


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