Friday, April 21, 2017

Death of a Jock: Aaron Hernandez and the Movies

The big news coming out of the sports world as I write this is the suicide of Aaron Hernandez, who starred as a tight end for the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots. At the time of his death, Hernandez was in prison serving a life sentence for fatally shooting a friend.  Less than a week after he was acquitted of a double-homicide in Boston, he was found in his cell, dangling from a noose made out of bedsheets. 

Hernandez’s brief life (he died at 27) seems to have been continuously marked by violence. Back in 2007, when he was a seventeen-year-old college football player at Florida State in Gainesville, he refused to pay a bar tab, then punched a barroom employee so hard that he shattered the man’s eardrum. Later that same year he was implicated but not charged in a Gainesville incident in which five shots were fired into a car at a stoplight, wounding two. Pundits say these were classic cases in which a prized jock eluded punishment because of his value to his team and his sport. Star athletes are like stars of stage and screen: their glamour allows them to pretty much get away with murder. (See the strange and disturbing case of O.J. Simpson, who was of course a celebrity in both respects, and whose acquittal on murder charges is very much part of the history of the City of Stars.)

Aaron Hernandez is hardly the first star athlete to combine physical power with a propensity for violence off the field. Some jocks, or so it seems, are fueled by rage that bubbles to the surface without warning. What’s striking is that, given how many movies focus on the wide world of sports, how few of them confront the anger that’s at the center of many athletes’ lives. Instead, sports movies tend toward fun and games, or toward a hagiographic approach in which the athlete at the film’s center seems a candidate for sainthood. Take baseball: such movies as Pride of the Yankees (about Lou Gehrig), The Jackie Robinson Story, Field of Dreams, and 42 tend to idolize baseball players. The characters in Bull Durham are less saintly, but fit into the category of charming rogues.
For me the football-related movies that spring to mind also focus on heroics. See, for instance, 1940’s Knute Rockne, All American. Much more recently there’s Brian’s Song, the 1971 TV movie that became a 2001 feature film: in both the focus of this true story is on the evolving friendship of a black and white teammates  who start as rivals and end as close friends, who close ranks before Brian Piccolo dies of cancer. And football becomes an ennobling experience in such high school films as Remember the Titans and The Blind Side. 

I’m hard-pressed to think of a football film in which the game’s raw cruelty is central to the story. Nor can I recall a football flick in which a character’s full-on aggression is not limited to the playing field. Are there any sports movies that dare to explore flawed men who can’t control their powerful and reckless anger?  I’d suggest looking at films about boxing. The classic example, of course, is Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, a gripping biopic about the self-destructive Jake LaMotta. In the more recent The Fighter, it’s the brother (played by Christian Bale) of the main character, real-life boxer Micky Ward, who best exemplifies the self-defeating anger that can ruin a boxer’s life. 

Will the Aaron Hernandezes of the sporting world inspire any movies? Maybe these stories are just too sad to tell.

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