The perils of hero worship

Fans cheered former NFL football player Aaron Hernandez before his murder conviction.
Fans cheered former NFL football player Aaron Hernandez before his murder conviction. AP

The big murder trial that’s been obsessing Bostonians has ended with a guilty verdict. No, you’re not having déjà vu. Wednesday’s jury decision came in the case of Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots star tight end. Hernandez was convicted of murdering Odin Lloyd, a semiprofessional football player who was also dating Hernandez’s fiancée’s sister. Although the motive remains shady, it seems possible that the 2013 murder was connected to the still unresolved criminal charge that Hernandez killed two other people the year before – strangers who accidentally insulted him in a nightclub.

If that charge also turns out to be true, then Hernandez killed almost as many people as the Tsarnaev brothers who perpetrated the Boston Marathon bombing two years ago. Because the Tsarnaevs’ crime was terrorism, they also permanently injured many more people, and their subsequent actions led to a multicity lockdown.

The crimes therefore aren’t precisely analogous.

Yet there is an uncomfortable and complicated relationship between the two cases and their chronologically twinned trials. Both in different ways forced Bostonians to think the unthinkable: that homegrown terrorists could be nurtured in our midst, and that the athletic heroes whom we worship could actually be sociopathic killers. Both of these unthinkable thoughts go to the core of what gives Boston its distinctive identity in the early 21st century.

The lurid details of Hernandez’s murder of Lloyd are almost beside the point – what matters is the scale of Hernandez’s apparent appetite and capacity to shoot people. From the trial we know that Hernandez was out with Lloyd, and apparently on friendly terms, only a few days before the killing. Something caused him to turn on Lloyd and arrange to murder him. That something was never explained during the trial, but the most logical explanation would seem to be that he thought Lloyd knew something or might be prepared to say something about the double murder with which Hernandez is separately charged.

In that other episode, prosecutors allege, Hernandez became enraged after a man in a nightclub accidentally bumped into him and caused him to spill a drink. Hernandez then lay in wait outside the club. From his SUV he shot two men, Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, killing them both.

In yet one further incident between the two slayings, Hernandez apparently shot an acquaintance in the face in Florida, injuring but not killing the man. The acquaintance testified at Hernandez’s trial for the Lloyd murder.

This conduct seems more like it would come from Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger than an admired athlete. And this is where things get symbolically complicated. Hernandez played a season for the Patriots between the nightclub killings and the Lloyd murder. Unaware of his crimes, we, or at least I, happily cheered for him on the field. Robert Kraft, the Patriots’ owner, who also testified at the trial, used to kiss Hernandez when he would run into him socially.

It would be easy to say that we Bostonians aren’t implicated in Hernandez’s crimes, because we were ignorant of them. But that seems much too easy. The problem isn’t just that Hernandez had a modestly checkered past as a college player at the University of Florida.

No, the problem lies in the depth of identification that a true Bostonian feels with his or her athletic heroes. In Boston, perhaps more even than in other American cities, our sports teams provide the social glue that holds a diverse city together. Our admiration has become a crucial component of our civic identity.

This more-than-adulation of our athletes was on view after the marathon attacks. The “Boston Strong” motif was worn and recited by citizens proudly wearing Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins and Patriots gear – literally the uniforms of our civic belonging. By far the most effective public spokesman for Boston in that post-marathon moment was Red Sox great David Ortiz, who memorably announced in front of a full Fenway crowd that “this is our (expletive) city.”

What if it had been Aaron Hernandez who had said that? My point isn’t to insult Ortiz. My point, rather, is that we Bostonians confer leadership on our athletic heroes, not just admiration. The Hernandez conviction reminds us of the uncomfortable fact that this is an arbitrary, indeed somewhat childish thing to do.

The Hernandez conviction tells me that I blindly rooted for and identified with a murderer, maybe even a mass murder. And I did it as a Bostonian, in the exercise of my civic pride. This is, or should be, deeply discomfiting. A bit like knowing my city can produce jihadi terrorists. At some point, collective pride must generate some collective responsibility. To have one without the other is to be, well, a bit of a child.

Noah Feldman is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard.