Super Bowl XLVII 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.

Comments (11)

  1. Great article. The classic ” I wouldn’t do this if I had money like him” answer is futile here. Like you said no one knows what they would’ve done. And neither did Hernandez. This hurts a lot more than most because I’ve been a Pats fan all my life.

    • I think a case like this shows that money or not, some people are just prone to do things like this, given certain circumstances (we obviously don’t know the exact circumstances yet). But I think we can all agree that Hernandez is a little fucked up, and that’s pretty much as far as we can go in terms of “why?”.

      As Jordan said, great article Parkes.

  2. “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. One million times. Great read.

  3. Great article Parkes. One thing I don’t understand is when you say the following ‘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.’

    I understand the past drug use and potential gang affiliations, but why do tattoos matter at all? I don’t understand the point of tattoos being on athletes gives them a non role modelish look or whatever the case may be. I’m not trying to pick on the article – which is great – I’m just trying to understand what you mean. Thanks dude!

    • He was saying those things lead the public to make assumptions on his guilt. Very few people who make statements about this case actually know Aaron Hernandez so they make assumptions on his character based on what they can see and have heard and go from there.

    • Yeah, I thought of tattoos as something that contributes to the generally help presumption of his guilt. Don’t get me wrong. I think that’s ridiculous, but I also think it’s a thing that contributes to perception, in this case unfairly.

  4. An extremely thought provoking article.

    “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.”

    Great great work.

  5. Instead of dismissing sports/NFL to be the cause of the crime (which it’s not – it’s a people problem as you noted), I’d be interested in seeing if there is any sort of link or statistic tying (violent) crimes to NFL players. For example, when the NHL had those suicides the past few summers, people thought about a link between concussions/brain damage and depression, and it seemed to have merit (I don’t recall if a conclusion was reached). Losing 2 out of 600ish employees to suicide certainly hasn’t happened in my office. I wouldn’t be so quick to write it off in this case.

    • I agree with you. Maybe the better question is are kids who’s history, education availability, socio-economic factors and such more likely to view a professional sports career as a viable career. These same factors also put the same kids at a higher risk for violent cimes and future problems like drug abuse. Kids want to succeed in life; given the environment some of these boys come out of, its hard to imagine that they made it. Football culture does not create better men, just more efficient players and the fact that these kids are almost 100% developed by the time they sign that contract is not the nfl’s or ncaa’s problem. Just go and get that ball right and don’t embarrass the logo on your jersey. This is so unfortunate; I am so sorry for this family and those kids who dream of a better future that is bulit around disposable / interchangeable players. i guess in the Patriots eyes, there’s always next years draft and at least we only burnt a 6th rounder.

  6. We put athletes on a pedestal and they’re paid millions because of god given abilities they posses which we do not. At the end of the day they’re human beings. And in a lot of cases (it would seem this one included) they aren’t ready for the things that come with that life style.

    Great work Parkes, that’s top notch journalism in my opinion.

  7. You’re a great writer, Parkes. Do you write about non-sports stuff elsewhere? If you did, would you be allowed to mention it in the comments of a blog you write for?

    If you don’t write about other things, you should. As your article hints at, sports are a trivial aspect of life, a distraction, albeit a fun and drama-filled one. You should set your sights on writing about things of greater consequence.

    You know, like Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *