By Nathan James
As the sun rises on another dreary weekday morning, the explosive events that marked the end of former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez' life has dominated the water-cooler conversations of many a sports fan across America. Hernandez, 27, hanged himself in a Massachusetts jail cell, shortly after winning acquittal in a closely-watched double-murder trial. Still serving a life term for the murder of his friend Odin Lloyd (a case which was on appeal), the despondent young man took extraordinary steps to ensure his suicide would be successful. Before looping the prison-issue bedsheets around his neck and closing his eyes forever, the young athlete posted several suicide letters to significant people in his orbit. One such letter was addressed to a fellow inmate, Kyle Kennedy, said to be Hernandez' gay lover. While the contents of the missive are not yet known, there is no uncertainty about the impact Hernandez’ final words will, in this case, have on the NFL its players, and how we view the intersection of professional sports and sexual orientation. That’s a topic which has always been at turns both radioactive and unsettling.
A couple of years ago, I was sitting in a Jersey City bar, talking with a former NFL player, Darrell Reid, a stellar linebacker and Super Bowl champ, about the plight of aspiring athlete Michael Sam, who was cut from both the St. Louis Rams and the Dallas Cowboys before ever playing a single regular-season game for either team. Sam was the first openly gay player to join the NFL and things didn’t end well for him. Sam’s career died aborning, and he retired from pro sports, citing “mental health” issues. My companion at the tavern was unflinching and direct about what had happened to Sam. “[Sam] was set up to fail,” Reid insisted, “nobody wanted a gay player in their locker room.”
Those words struck me hard. As a gay man, I knew their truth, the truth of a stubbornly homophobic society which wasn’t ready for a player like Sam in such an overtly hyper-masculine profession. At the time of that conversation, I wondered if the NFL—which has had its share of controversies involving their players’ off-the-field behavior—would ever accept an out, proud athlete. We’ve all heard the canards the league uses to justify its homophobic attitudes: they don’t want the “locker room drama”, the “media scrutiny would be a distraction”, “the fans wouldn’t support it”, and intimations that the out player in question might even be gay-bashed by his teammates. Yet, through the years, there have always been closeted players among the NFL’s 32 teams, including Wade Davis, who came out after retiring. What Hernandez did in writing his suicide note, was tantamount to a posthumous, public, coming-out, a bombshell parting shot to the NFL, for whom he played, but could never truly be at peace with.
His words, whatever they are, say far more than I think even he realized. They put paid (again) to the lie that openly gay players would cause all kinds of problems within the clubs for which they played. All the talk of teammates being “uncomfortable sharing showers” with a known gay player, or being seen in a state of undress by him, fly in the face of Hernandez’ three successful seasons with the Patriots. The Patriots were playing alongside a gay teammate all the while, blissfully unaware, as he helped them get all the way to Super Bowl XLVI. Although it was discovered after the fact that Hernandez continued a relationship with his high school boyfriend into his playing years in the NFL, while the star was racking up yardage for the team, he was also running furiously away from his truth—a truth, that if revealed, might spell finis to his beloved football career. That career was worth $40 million, and it was, as Hernandez himself characterized, “a good life”.
Hernandez had to know that after his death, all the world would hear about that secret life, that other Aaron, that tormented young soul locked in the age-old struggle between society’s demands and his own authentic feelings towards the men he loved. It has since also come out (literally) that upon his arrest for the murder of Odin Lloyd, Hernandez was said to have sent most of his NFL earnings to his boyfriend, in a clandestine transfer of funds. Although he did have a female fiancé and daughter (to whom he allegedly sent lesser sums), this, if borne out, says to me, “that’s love”. If not love, then, more cynically, hush money. Either way, it was an acknowledgment of the reality that often accompanies those living in the closet you sometimes must take extraordinary measures to protect your secret, protect the success to which you have tethered your presumptive heterosexuality.
Knowing that his next stop was beyond the reach of anyone here on the Earthly plane, Hernandez finally let slip his tragic truth, the truth that he felt none could previously know, the truth that would have caused much consternation in the football world (and with his fans), had it been uncovered while he was still on the gridiron. His actions say much, but they also tell us, the living, much more about ourselves than we care to admit. If Aaron Hernandez couldn’t reconcile his two great passions—playing professional football, and seeking the love of other men—then perhaps we can make his legacy something happier than the closet, murder, jail, and suicide. Perhaps from his short, turbulent life, we can find a way to meet the next aspiring gay NFL player by rewarding his talent, not ridiculing him for his sexual orientation. I’m sure Aaron’s ghost will be watching.