Aaron Hernandez’s story weighed heavily on my mind recently thanks to the Boston Globe’s series “Gladiator.” One particular aspect of the former New England Patriot’s woes particularly bothered me. Once arrested on a charge of first degree murder, his former team tried to erase him from history.
It didn’t take long for the NFL and the Patriots to stop selling Aaron Hernandez jerseys online following the tight end getting arrested and charged with murder. The Pats took things a step further by offering a free exchange over the weekend for Patriots fans who wanted to rid themselves of their Hernandez jerseys.
The swap was quite popular with more than 1,200 fans showing up to flip their jerseys. And all told, the Patriots ended up losing about $250,000 during the swap, team owner Robert Kraft said Monday when speaking on Hernandez for the first time publicly since the tight end’s arrest.
His accomplishments as a tight end meant nothing once cops fitted him with shiny metal bracelets. Hernandez’s glory days at Foxboro were gone the moment Patriots management and staff decided he wasn’t a person worth mentioning.
Aaron Hernandez would eventually take his life ,despite beating a second murder charge. And his legacy would fade from the minds of many long-time fans like my father-in-law, who told me, “I don’t follow boxing” when I asked him if he knew who Aaron Hernandez was. Some would blame Hernandez’s posthumous CTE diagnosis for his untimely death.
What if Aaron’s felony conviction was the deciding factor in his choice to exit this life?
This idea didn’t really come to me until Hassan Assad’s TEDx talk. Assad served nine years in prison for armed robbery. If Vince McMahon hadn’t taken a chance on him, given him the name “Montel Vontavious Porter” and run with his new star, there’s a good chance Assad would’ve eventually landed back behind bars.
One of the criminal justice system’s biggest cons is the concept of “paying your debt to society.” We tell the convicted once they serve their time they’ll come back to the real world, get a job, find a suitable place to live, and life will resume as usual before they made a bad decision.
This is reality for a lucky few. If you’re a convicted felon and in a state where a box on your job application asks about your bad decision, your dreams of gainful employment may as well ride on unicorn farts. Renting a place to sleep at night is easy enough until your landlord finds out about your record. You could be the biggest pop star on the planet and mere allegations of wrongdoing are enough to erase you from history.
Assad never got the chance to be a pro wrestling world champion because he’s part of a permanent underclass society created. His accomplishments in and out of the ring don’t matter, nor does his letter of rehabilitation used every time he crosses the border to Canada. He can pay cash to lease a residence and the F word on a background check is enough for potential lessors to turn him away.
Legislators are currently arguing the merits of criminal justice reform. The folks on Capitol Hill had a grand time patting themselves on the back over the First Step Act. We don’t need elected officials passing laws to help those with a felony conviction and change criminal justice for the better.
All it takes is a simple choice between fear and compassion. We either realize people make bad decisions and give them a chance to move on or we turn away as we yell “BEGONE, FELON!” Yes, it might be uncomfortable for you to hire the guy with the armed robbery conviction to work at your call center, but realize it’s just as hard, if not harder, for the job applicant who wants a return to normal, law-abiding productive life.
A marked difference in criminal justice can be achieved by actually recognizing when people pay their debts to society. Looking the other way means we’ll continually punish even the best among us who make even one bad decision, as well as their families. That’s not the world we want, no matter who or where you are.