I spent some time as a young man hoping to be a musician, and a teacher of mine, while failing to fulfill my dream, taught me something that has stayed with me since then. He was showing me how to play slide guitar, and he told me that the reason for that exotic sound was that the only limitation on the number of notes on a string is the length of the string, and when you slide up or down it, you are catching a small piece of infinite possibility. We impose structure on sound so we can contain it, understand it, manipulate it, but we never come close to capturing all of it.
It took years for me to realize that this is also true of human beings. As many ways as we try to categorize people -- religion, ethnicity, nationality, skin pigmentation -- we can't begin to account for the variation of personality along the spectrum of the human condition, nor measure easily where we fall within it. Infinite possibility, as marvelous as it sounds, can be quite frightening when applied to the extremities of the human condition. Still, when it comes to the things that really frighten us -- sexual deviance or extreme violence -- we would like to believe there are no subtle gradations along that spectrum, just a gaping disconnect between us and them. If only.
There's a narrow range of possibility, though, when it comes to football. It takes a rare brew of obsession and aggression to make a good football player, and most of us don't fall on that spectrum. There's plenty of variation within even that sample, but the distance between, say, Ed Reed and Peyton Manning as archetypal personalities is surprisingly small.
Which brings me to the sorry case of Aaron Hernandez, who at 23 stands accused of one heinous crime, with perhaps more charges on the way. What we know so far is not pretty, and so Hernandez has quickly morphed in the public imagination from brutally efficient wingman for Tom Brady to brutally deviant handcuffed defendant in a Boston courtroom. It is convenient for those of us who love football -- insiders and outsiders -- to conclude that there's a huge gap between Hernandez and everyone else who plays the game. The speed with which the Patriots pitched him and his jerseys to the other side of that divide is justified, we believe, though no verdict has yet been reached.
Maybe. Certainly it doesn't serve either the franchise or the NFL to stand by Hernandez now. As Sally Jenkins pointed out in The Washington Post, classifying Hernandez as just another violent gun-toting player feeds the worst kinds of stereotypes about football players, and it arms the dumbest among us to repeat those stereotypes with a virtual bullhorn. But even the evidence presented in Jenkins' column -- crime statistics that more or less demonstrate that NFL players are no more prone to stupidity than most young men -- sends up some warnings about the edges of that population.
We expect football players -- even unformed and troubled 20-something-year-olds -- to be very different from us on Sunday and very much like us the rest of the week. They have a license to bludgeon other people on the field that disappears when they take off their pads. There is no in-between. Most figure out a way to at least fake it. Some stumble along the way. A few do a lot worse than that: Aaron Hernandez, if guilty, is not the first player, even in the past 12 months, to have taken another person's life.
It would be wrong to point fingers at Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft, as some have done. Much as they're easy to resent -- mostly because they're so successful -- they're no different from most -- if not all -- NFL execs. The anonymous GMs who are saying they wouldn't have touched Hernandez with a 10-foot pole are at best disingenuous and at worst hypocrites. Every time they sign a contract with a draftee, they are investing in an aggressive young man who still needs to grow up. The risk may be lower with some and higher with others, but the principal determining factors in those contracts lie not in that equation but in just how good they are at football. Passing on Hernandez in the early rounds was just good risk analysis; he had, after all, scored the lowest possible on a widely circulated behavioral test, according to The Wall Street Journal. But if the Patriots had passed on Hernandez in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, he'd be somebody else's problem to spin now.
Given all that, what can the NFL really do, given the uneasy relationship between players and team medical staff, and a culture that shies away from talk of mental problems? League officials only in the past few years have begun to come to grips with what happens when players repeatedly crash their brains into one another over a period of years. They've mandated staff counseling to help rookies navigate their first year in the league, and a new Total Wellness program offers a website and hotline. The league's health insurance offers mental health coverage. Still, most of those mandated counselors are not trained professionals. And websites and hotlines are too much like what most teams already do: offer a palliative that requires the player to take the initiative. Plus, the transient nature of a player's tenure makes it too easy to pass problems on to the next coach or GM.
Pro coaching staffs are now so specialized that every play at every position is documented to the second. Would it hurt to require a professional on staff -- as a half-dozen teams already do -- who analyzes the behavioral patterns of the players as well, who sees warning signs and advises coaches on what to do about them, who counsels players when they're drifting toward the fringe? Don't the owners and coaches, and the union, owe it to the players to invest in them as more than just chattel, to break through the thicket of mistrust and confusion around these issues, even if just to protect that investment? Is it really enough to simply write behavior incentives into a contract, when all that does is put the onus on the player and take the team off the hook?
The Pats saw enough in Aaron Hernandez to invest tens of millions in him. It's what they didn't see or wouldn't see that should make us all take pause.
Gary Hoenig is a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine.