Editorial: Falling harder


Former professional football tight end Aaron Hernandez used to call Gillette Stadium — where the four-time Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots are based — home.

But on Wednesday, Hernandez was told he would soon be relocating to about 1.6 miles northwest of the stadium – to the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Cedar Junction, that is.

The former Patriot, 25, was found guilty of first-degree murder in the deadly June 2013 late-night shooting of an alleged friend, Odin Lloyd, and was also found guilty on charges of firearms and ammunition possession and subsequently sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, ESPN reported.

At the time of his death, Lloyd had been a linebacker for a semi-professional football team, the Boston Bandits, and was also dating the sister of Hernandez’s fiancée, the network said.

Meanwhile, Hernandez had just been awarded a $40 million contract with the Patriots, NBC News reported.

Hernandez’s case is reminiscent of several other high-profile scandals among professional athletes. In 2007, NFL quarterback Michael Vick pled guilty to federal felony charges for his involvement in an illegal dog-fighting ring and later served 21 months in prison. In 2013, South African Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius was arrested and charged with the murder of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp. He later acknowledged that he had indeed shot Steenkamp through a bathroom door, but only because he mistook her for an intruder – and was sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison.

And in 2014, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was arrested and charged with assault for apparently knocking out his then-fiancée in an Atlantic City casino elevator. Criminal charges were later dropped in favor of court-supervised counseling, and Rice was suspended for the first two games of the following NFL season.

But perhaps most notorious is the case of former NFL running back O.J. Simpson, who was arrested in 1994 for the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. Brown and Goldman had been found gruesomely stabbed to death outside Brown’s condominium in Los Angeles.

Simpson was charged with the dual murders, and after failing to turn himself into law enforcement officials, he famously became the target of a low-speed car chase, The Los Angeles Times reported. He later stopped outside of his lavish home and was coaxed out of the car by police, according to The Times. In the resulting so-called “trial of the century” — during which roughly 100 million people either watched or listened to the jury’s verdict — Simpson was deemed not guilty of the murders.

The alleged — or verified — crimes very likely garnered an astronomical level of public scrutiny due to their incorporation of famous figures. But another layer of fascination was likely added because such figures were professional athletes.

Unlike other groups of notables, professional athletes must almost universally exhibit an exceptional array of skills — strength, speed, durability, flexibility or stamina, to name a few. They must work exceptionally hard to be taken seriously, and the most successful athletes are generally those who are most devoted to their respective sports.

And none of that is to mention the clean, inspirational image they’re expected to uphold. A cultish following tends to go hand-in-hand with athletic stardom; legions of people, and especially children, are involved in some kind of sport. This broad community often looks up to those deemed “masters of their sports” as almost divine. Pro athletes’ photos comprise the wallpaper of many rooms; their games draw hundreds of thousands; replicas of their jerseys appear on many others’ backs.

Through these athletes, we see the incredible human physical capabilities. We see dedication. We see passion — a reason to live.

But with great fame comes great responsibility, and athletes provide no exception to the rule. They may be able to temper scandals with increased ease using a vast amount of financial and social resources — but pro athletes can fall harder and harder with every step they climb.

We’re certainly entitled to idolize athletes, or celebrities of any kind, but we should not let such affinities cloud our notions of right and wrong. Above all, we should recognize that they are actual humans — and not use that to excuse their misdeeds, but to remind ourselves of the vulnerability within us all.

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