I’ve been a little troubled lately, ever since the Aaron Hernandez news broke a couple weeks ago. Life happens; bad things happen to people both deserving and undeserving every day. That’s not in question. Nor is the possibility of anything in question, really. But I was surprised at how quickly the media turned on Hernandez, and more than a little shocked by the Patriots dropping him within hours of his arrest. An arrest, after all, is not a conviction; an arrest is done on suspicion. You can argue that an arrest is enough; that an organization has the right to maintain a certain image if they want. But as soon as I saw the story break, my immediate thought was to Ray Lewis, who was arrested on suspicion of murder a little more than a decade ago, in an episode that is, for the most part, markedly similar to Hernandez’s situation. There are two major differences so far that I see; first, the district attorney in the Hernandez case seems to want to make a headline of it and a name for himself by throwing the book at Hernandez, and second, Ray Lewis’s team stood by him. This changes the picture; the Ravens stood by Lewis, for better or worse, a fact that probably, in hindsight now, played heavily into public opinion. Hernandez got thrown under the bus by the team that drafted him and has employed him; this, conversely, makes him look guilty in the court of public opinion.
Hernandez may be guilty. He may not. But the way his case has moved through the media fascinates me, and the way the NFL in particular has treated him is at least kind of horrifying. This is the man’s trade, after all. It’s not as if he’s a cashier who got dumped by Kroger’s after being arrested; he could be acquitted and find new employment over at Walgreen’s. If he’s acquitted, his name in the NFL is tarnished and he has nowhere else to go. Oh, sure, someone will take a flier on him ultimately, but it’s a valid question to ask if he can get past this, if he is.
Two of his former college teammates, the Pouncey brothers, both NFL players now, recently were caught on film wearing hats that say “Free Hernandez.” This became a story in the media. Are these men not entitled to their opinions? They’ve basically been reprimanded for standing up for a friend, who – again – may or may not be guilty. What’s wrong with showing some support? Aaron Hernandez has not been convicted of anything; he is entitled to the support of his friends and family, is he not?
More recently, the reaction to the Martin/Zimmerman verdict has been somewhat unsettling, as well, with plenty of snarky remarks about vigilante justice being made.
Does public opinion overrule the courts now?
Are we not innocent until proven guilty? Are we not innocent if we are acquitted?
I recently read “Idiot America” by Charles Pierce; he said in it that one of the Great Premises of Idiot America is that if something is said loud enough often enough, it becomes true. No other era has held opinion so valued and so powerful as we do now, where everyone with the gumption can have a blog, and everyone who finds enough volume can propel their ideas out across the digital vacuum and beyond. That does not make someone an expert, and it does not make the media the place to hold trials.
We are innocent until proven guilty, and innocent if we are acquitted. That is a core tenet of justice in this country. Where has it gone?