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Rolling Stone Nails Aaron Hernandez—But Misses the NFL

I found two false notes in Rolling Stone’s otherwise excellent, scrupulously reported story on the downfall of former star New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who now faces a murder charge and is being investigated for several other alleged crimes, including other killings. The article is a comprehensive mini-biography sketching all the Hernandez warning signs: The father with an addictive streak (who cleaned up his act and was a wonderful father—and then died); the mother who fell in with a dealer; Hernandez’s prolific use not just of marijuana but of angel dust, his violent streak, his love of guns and gangster culture.

One of the false notes is minor and confined to the tidy world of football. Authors Paul Solotaroff and Ron Borges have harsh words for Patriots head coach and de facto general manager Bill Belichick for drafting Hernandez even though the University of Florida graduate “received the lowest possible score, one out of 10, in the category of ‘social maturity’” in his report, “which also noted that he enjoyed ‘living on the edge of acceptable behavior.’” They fault Belichick for taking a chance on Hernandez. But it is not a football team’s job to seek “character” guys except insofar as they believe those guys will be better in the locker room and in turn make for better on-field performance. Referring to Belichick’s re-signing of Hernandez and injury-prone tight end Rob Gronkowski, they add, “Like most of Belichick’s recent gestures, this would come back to burn him. He’d lose Gronkowski and Hernandez to injuries.” Wait: Smart football coaches (just reading this article, you wouldn’t know the Pats won their conference twice in the past six seasons) who have to win the Super Bowl when 31 other teams with the same amount of money to spend on personnel are also trying to win the Super Bowl frequently make high-risk, high-reward decisions? I’m scandalized! 

But here’s the part that really bothered me. The authors write:

There have been 47 arrests of NFL players since the end of the last regular season: bar brawls, cars wrecked, spouses shoved or beaten. Violence travels; it follows these men home, where far too many learn they have no kill switch. But there’s the sociopathy of a savage game, and then there’s Aaron Hernandez.

I can understand how that passage got in. Editors don’t just want a story about one guy. They want it to be extrapolate-able. In many ways, that is what magazine journalism is: The telling of specific stories that are explicitly shown to be metonyms for cultural trends.

But this is just dishonest. Football is “sociopathic” in the same way chess is “sociopathic”: They’re both games in which each side agrees to suspend the ordinary rules of human activity in order to compete on a level playing field—in other words, they are not sociopathic at all. This construct is just dishonest (as you can see with that final sentence, a half-hearted hedge), and represents the worst traits of magazine journalism.

Also, if “violence travels,” then the National Football League is pretty poor evidence. NFL players are, adjusted for age, gender, race, and socioeconomic background, less violent and criminal than average people. This is not my opinion. A few months ago, for instance, ThinkProgress’s Travis Waldron crunched the numbers and showed it’s true. And around the same time, Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins really nailed it:

the NFL is not the only organization that unwittingly harbors criminals. The military had 26,000 cases of sexual assault last year. And for sheer volume of criminal activity, don’t look at the NFL; look at financial institutions, which in 2011 accounted for 1,719 FBI cases. The statistics suggest the men who play football are, on the whole, less criminally violent than soldiers and more ethically respectable than looters with Harvard MBAs who commit acts of grand larceny with “financial instruments.” Or the middle management creeps employed by Cleveland Browns owner Jim Haslam at Pilot Oil, who have pleaded guilty to bilking long-haul truckers. …

In fact, 80 percent of retired NFL players over the age of 50 have college degrees, compared with 30 percent of the general population, according to a University of Michigan study. That same survey said 64 percent of NFL retirees between the ages of 30 and 49 found are still married to their first wife. As a group they are more committed and disciplined than most employees, evince deep loyalty to their bosses and colleagues and sacrifice their long-term health for their families. In return for which they get ranted at by fans for being overpaid and stigmatized as thugs by foaming commentators in need of story lines.

So the next time Hernandez appears in court, don’t identify him as an NFL player. He’s not one anymore. And he never was a particularly representative one.

The great virtue of Solotaroff and Borges’ piece is it draws out, with the details only real life could supply, exactly the extent to which Hernandez was particularly unrepresentative. That is magazine journalism at its best.

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