Like O.J. Simpson before him, Aaron Hernandez has joined an elite club of superstar athletes whose fall from grace may be as steep as the rise.
The rising NFL superstar’s arrest this week came in the course of an investigation into the murder of Odin Lloyd, Hernandez’ friend and semi-pro athlete (TNT 6/26). Hernandez’ perp walk, captured on film by a horde of journalists, was reminiscent of another NFL star’s high profile arrest in 1994 (minus the infamous Bronco chase scene). But where The Juice was a retired sports superstar, successful actor and household name, Hernandez, 23, is simply a young man whose stellar potential (and 40 million contract) still awaited the test of time.
It may be that the NFL and an arrest on homicide charges are all these two men have in common. That would be especially true if the gang rumors swirling around Hernandez prove to be valid
A quick Internet search reveals several troubling signs pointing in that direction.
First, there are the pictures: Hernandez at age 17, posing in a red hat and shirt and displaying gang signs attributed to the Bridgeport Bloods, a criminal street gang in his Connecticut hometown (check out TMZ if you’re curious); an undated photo of Hernandez snapping a picture of himself in a mirror, wearing similar attire and holding a semi-automatic pistol (from a sketchy, gang-related website).
Then there are the tattoos. Like many people his age, Hernandez’ body is covered in ink – arms and chest at least – . including one which spells out “Blood Sweat and Tears” on his left hand. This suspicious tattoo might easily represent other interests, such as the rock band of that name, but the red ink used to spell “blood” suggests otherwise.
Some may wonder why police would bother investigating Hernandez’ potential link to a street gang. The reason could best be summed up in one word: motive.
Many states, including Washington, have statutes specifically written for criminal street gangs. These codes, like RCW 9.94A.030, exist because the type of violent crime attributed to gang members are committed to further the reputation of the member within the gang, as well as the gang itself as a whole.
That explains why a gang member is likely to put a bullet in the head of a rival for wearing the “wrong” color, for being in the wrong neighborhood (aka “slipping”) or for any other perceived disrespect a gang member might view as a threat to his status.
Which brings us back to the troubling dilemma of Aaron Hernandez. Proper validation requires a set of gang related criteria that will withstand judicial tests, gang experts fluent in recognizing the signs – photos, tattoos, self-admission, clothing, relationships, etc. One item in Hernandez’ favor is the fact that evidence of gang involvement goes stale after five years.
Assuming Massachussetts follows the national gang criteria standards , experts should be able to legally prove Hernandez’ involvement if such exists. If he is not validated, then that is one less worry for him and a possible setback for the prosecution. But if Aaron Hernandez has maintained his gang ties – in other words, if the shoe fits -then it will be one more strike against him.
The more important question is this: How would Hernandez’ continued involvement in a criminal street gang look to vulnerable young men sitting on the fence, trying to choose between the lure of gangs and the hard road to true success? If a young superstar destined for athletic fame and fortune can’t turn his back on the false promises of the gang culture, then what hope is there for them?
For the sake of those kids, and for Hernandez’ himself, it would be satisfying to learn he put that life behind him a long time ago. It would be even better to discover that he is innocent, that his promising future could be back on track, and that this experience might convince him to spend some of his vast earnings on inner city youth programs.
But there are some questions about Hernandez’ gang ties that must be answered first.