I used to play an annoying game when I was a child. I’d ask why. I’d ask why all the time and I’d keep on asking why until the adult I was asking would give up trying to answer. I’d ask why, not for the sake of curiosity, but because I knew that at some point it would be impossible for the adult to answer why.
Back then, it may have been a subtle way to undermine authority, but at some point in my development, the persistent questioning of why we do the things we do led to a realization. When we break down our motivations far enough, we come to unanswerable questions.
We’re a bit of a mess in this sense. We act on urges, drives and motivators, and then we deal with the repercussions of the actions that those compulsions prompt us to perform. As this happens, we constantly try and fail to understand from where the unexplained pressures of those obligations come.
Then, because we’re conflicted beings – curious enough to ask why, but often too lazy to accurately answer our own question – we either end our pursuit prematurely, or we answer the unanswerable questions with fictions. The urge to have an explicable answer isn’t curiosity. True curiosity leads to the unknown. The desire to have a neat answer is stronger than that. It’s so strong in fact that it allows us to convince ourselves of fictions, and explain away questions about motivation with nonsense.
This conflict is especially difficult for writers, who feel a simultaneous urge to not only understand motivation, but also explain it to others. It’s not a gift. It’s likely more closely aligned with a social deficiency. The majority of us do little more than read aloud the subtitles that foreign film audiences already see and can read for themselves, while the worst of us peddle fictions as truth and the best of us illustrate how little we all know about anything.
On Wednesday, when Aaron Hernandez was charged with the first degree murder of Odin Lloyd, I felt the urge to write about it. I write about sports for a living, and this subject seemed like it was important to sports in a big picture, what-does-it-all-mean sort of way. There was one problem: It wasn’t.
The details were well known before Hernandez’s arrest, and if they weren’t, they certainly became so during his arraignment when the prosecution laid out their case against him. Lloyd’s lifeless body had been discovered last week in an industrial park in North Attleborough, Massachusetts, a mile from the upscale neighborhood where Hernandez, a star tight end for the New England Patriots, lived. The man had been shot to death following a night out in nearby Boston with the NFL player and two others.
In the days that followed, police searched Hernandez’s residence, and discovered that shortly after Lloyd’s murder, he had hired a professional cleaner for his house, smashed his mobile phone and erased several hours of home security footage from his own surveillance system. Further investigation of additional private security footage, text messages and phone records all placed the men at the scene where the body was discovered, but perhaps most damning was the police’s discovery of a shell casing left behind in Hernandez’s rental car.
This, as the defense is eager to emphasize, is all circumstantial evidence. However, it’s a staggering enough amount to push the public’s assumptions toward presumptions. Adding force to this shift are tattoos, past drug use, potential gang affiliations and the so-called character problems that caused Hernandez’s stock to fall in the 2010 NFL draft.
It’s all a way of asking why. Why would someone who has experienced such a tremendous amount of success en route to becoming one of the elite members in his field commit a heinous crime? The thing is, it’s a futile question. It’s something that, if he did indeed committed murder, not even Hernandez would be able to fully explain the motivation that caused him to do it.
This isn’t a sports issue. It’s a people issue. There’s no link. And yet, sports writers search for a semblance of a chain in their own area of expertise, making the story about the New England Patriots or the criminal culture of violence in the NFL. It’s answering the why question with forced fiction.
Were the Patriots aware of the possibility of Hernandez’s past playing a negative role in his future? Definitely. They drafted five players before they selected Hernandez, not wanting to risk a better pick on a potential problem. Should they have seen the murder charge coming before signing him to a $40 million contract? No. They’re a football team, not clairvoyants.
Does professional football enable violent criminals? Yep, every bit as much as any other profession. Blaming the NFL’s culture for the reprehensible behavior of its members is to assume that crimes aren’t committed by any other profession in the world, and that there exists a perfect template for the creation of a violent criminal. That’s not to absolve the league from its responsibility to foster those in its employ toward becoming good citizens, but rather condemn the lazy finger pointing that blames systemic issues in place of investigating the nuanced complications of individuals.
Does any of this matter? Nope. Not even a little bit. It’s the nonsense dressing on a salad comprised of ingredients we don’t know and can’t understand. This is why there should be a limit to the question of why. The further down we go, answers become more incapable of explaining, and the likelihood of personal fictions being added to fill in the blanks of the unknowable increase. At some point, the pursuit of why becomes that of a petulant child’s.
But even this problem – made so evident by the case of Aaron Hernandez – pales in comparison to the actions that sparked this column. A man was shot to death. Yes, men and women, too, are shot to death all over the world everyday. However, it still seems to me that in our search to answer the whys and tell others what it all means, we’ve completely overlooked two more prescient questions: 1) Who; and 2) what?
Odin Lloyd. Murder.