On Wednesday, Aaron Hernandez was arrested and charged with, among other things, the first-degree murder of of Odin Lloyd, an acquaintance of his who was found dead about a mile from Hernandez’s house in Attleboro, Massachusetts. Soon after, the New England Patriots released him, cutting their ties with him before his case heads to trial. If Hernandez was indeed behind the murder in some capacity, we don’t yet know what motivated him to be part of such a violent act.
The fact that next to nothing is known about why it happened hasn’t stopped sports journalists from condemning Hernandez’s character in the latest in a long line of knee-jerk responses to non-white athletes who commit crimes. He has had his past dalliances intensely scrutinized, and been labelled a coward and a disaster waiting to happen. He was a troubled young man in college, prone to maturity issues and hanging with a “bad crowd”, things which most young people struggle with but which for these journalists screams “potential murderer”. It is revisionism of the worst sort to pretend that a high schooler who smoked marijuana and posed a certain way in pictures could have been gang-affiliated, or that someone who aced a psychological exam before the NFL draft could have been a ticking time bomb of violence.
Responses to the Hernandez case are the latest displays of a troubling trend in sports: the impact of race and racial coding on the perception of athletes. Studies have shown that announcers and journalists show a bias towards white athletes, and reserve a more intense scrutiny for those of color. Code words like “scrappy” and “regular guy” are used the vast majority of the time to describe white athletes, while players referred to as being “aggressive” or “playing the game the right way” are mostly directed towards non-whites.
When one compares coverage of Hernandez to that of white athletes who have gone through legal and personal troubles, the differences are stark. Hernandez apparently developed a substance abuse problem while at Florida after his father passed away, and his failed drug tests have been used as evidence against him by many in the media. His former teammate Rob Gronkowski, on the other hand, is famously a heavy drinker and partier, but his antics are seen as fun and full of personality, and, though some journalists do criticize Gronkowski, it’s just seen as him being himself. Peter King tweeted about Hernandez being “the 113th pick in 2010 for a reason“, whereas Tom Brady, the 199th pick in 2000, got a free pass when he started dating another woman when his girlfriend was pregnant.
None of this is to say that Gronkowski or Brady should be vilified, or that Hernandez is getting a raw deal. All of us, be we athletes or not, are prone to mistakes, or surrounding ourselves with people who don’t have our best interests at heart. If Hernandez is guilty of Lloyd’s murder, or of any of the other charges that have been brought up against him, he deserves to go away for a long time. The narrative surrounding him, however, is the same that any athlete of color faces when in legal trouble; they are troubled, surrounded by shadowy individuals, have short tempers. When a white athlete faces trial, like sprinter Oscar Pistorius, it’s a “tragedy“, a fall from grace, and concern arises that the media coverage may be too harsh.
Outside of personal and legal trouble, double standards still pervade sports. Chris Andersen’s tattoos are his way of telling his life’s story, while Colin Kaepernick’s are like those of a prison inmate and John Wall’s are a red flag for signing him to a contract. A 1979 brawl in the stands of Madison Square Garden between the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins, teams in the predominantly-white NHL, didn’t result in any players being stigmatized for their actions. The same can’t be said of the Pistons-Pacers brawl of 2004, which resulted in criminal charges and a lifetime of infamy for several of its participants. White athletes “don’t back down“; athletes of color are “thugs“.
Aaron Hernandez is, if guilty, not the first athlete to commit an atrocious act of violence. He is also not the first athlete to have a dark past, especially in a sport like football, where violence is engrained in the very nature of the sport’s culture. If journalists want to dig into his past to find explanations for or warning signs of this crime, they had better start doing the same for a good percentage of the rest of the NFL, or any other league for that matter. Instead, they are perpetuating the same biases and prejudices that they always use when discussing athletes that aren’t white. We deserve better from our media.