The New England Patriots are the emblematic U.S. sports franchise of the 21st century. While the American experiment begins splitting at the seams, the Patriots' relentless success reminds the country that hard work, nimble thinking and iffy morals can still be counted on to get you ahead.
In time, this Patriots team will be remembered for two things: Tom Brady and Aaron Hernandez.
Brady is the athlete par excellence of his era – a wholesome backstory, a rise from obscurity, best-to-ever-play credentials and bland, approachable good looks, all adding up to an awesomely powerful branding machine. Brady is the player every sports league would engineer in a homosapien hamster mill if such a thing were possible.
Hernandez was a dim facsimile of Brady. He did not have the sort of upbringing that makes for bright feature copy; he played only three seasons; he was handsome in a threatening way.
He was a good, if unremarkable, pro football player – the sort of human chum the NFL churns through. Then it emerged that Hernandez had a sideline in killing people who'd offended him in inconsequential ways. That increased his Q Score. However, because of our constant jonesing need for more and better media highs, even Hernandez's lurid story couldn't grip public attention for very long. There was no apparent darkness in him. Not any you could easily see.
He wasn't articulate and evil – qualities that draw people. He was sullen and casually cruel. Whatever you tried to project onto Hernandez glanced off his sleepy demeanour. There was no lesson to be learned here since none of it made any sort of sense. Which, in itself, sums up the current mood in America.
Down there, everybody's killing everybody else for all sorts of stupid reasons. They're broadcasting it on Facebook. Our Running Man future grows ever closer.
So, sure, why not a rock-star pro-footballer who's just signed a $40-million (U.S.) contract and has a baby on the way? Why wouldn't he be shooting casual acquaintances in between two-a-days?
The inexplicability of Hernandez's crimes and the opacity of his personality made him a poor subject for the traditional arc of the transgressive athlete – fall and redemption. Had he spent the rest of a long life in prison, Hernandez would have become the answer at a bar trivia night.
But in the early morning hours of Wednesday, Hernandez, 27, hanged himself in his Massachusetts jail cell, according to corrections officials. The timing of his suicide seemed portentous.
In the afternoon, his former teammates were due to appear at the White House for the traditional feting of Super Bowl champions. Shortly after Hernandez's death was made public, Brady announced that he would be skipping the occasion to attend to "family matters." In fairness, he has sponsors to think of.
With their most valuable and photogenic product removed from the equation, the New England organization decided to go ahead with the visit.
In order to make things more bizarre, Patriots' doofus Rob Gronkowski crashed the daily White House press briefing.
"Need some help?" he said to Sean Spicer, the administration's secretary of foot-in-mouth affairs. Spicer pretended to be surprised.
"I think I got this, but thank you," Spicer said, incorrectly, and then: "That was cool." The watchdogs of U.S. democracy tittered in the background.
America, you no longer watch Saturday Night Live. You live in it.
As ESPN's senior conscience, anchor Bob Ley, pointed out angrily, the two events – Hernandez's death and the Patriots' photo-op – will now always be linked in the public imagination.
Today, it may not seem to matter. I suspect it might in the years to come, around the time we are deconstructing a moment in U.S. history.
Has there ever been a starker example of how primary and ultimately baffling a position sports are given in our culture than to light off a few confetti cannons for a team hours after one of its number, a high-profile murderer, has made himself global news via suicide? Does the proper response really seem to be trading a few zingers to lighten up the pre-nuclear gloom? I'm envisioning John F. Kennedy doing knock-knock jokes on national TV in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Consider how this would go down in your own professional world. The company picnic is on the weekend. Someone from accounting kills him or herself on Friday. But you go ahead with the sack races because, hey, people have booked babysitters.
It's unthinkable in the real world. But sports have become disconnected from the reality the rest of us inhabit. Flying the banner of "let's get back to normal," sports trudges on regardless of events or their consequences.
The unintended result of that decision is to begin turning Hernandez from a figure of derision into a tragic one. The conspiracy theories around his death are already flowering. His agent said there was "absolutely no chance" Hernandez took his own life and his family (understandably) wants an investigation.
For some, Hernandez will become an anti-heroic outsider, the John Dillinger of the gridiron. The further we get from the havoc he wreaked on other people's lives, the easier that is.
Eventually, someone will make a downbeat feature film of his life, one that will attempt (and fail) to bring meaning to meaninglessness. From an entertainer to an outcast and then repurposed into entertainment again. It's the lifecycle of American celebrity.
In the days to come, America will launch into its usual bout of performative soul searching. Why did he do it, who was to blame and what does it say about the rest of us?
Nothing. Aaron Hernandez the person is the least important part of the equation. He was a damaged man who had the good fortune to be born with an ability that just happens to be highly prized right now – catching a ball. Had he been really good at bringing up kids, doing math or connecting people (skills that actually matter), no one would care about any of this.
Aaron Hernandez the New England Patriot is the key here. What his life and death point out is the hollowness in the centre of our popular culture.
Hernandez mattered because he played football. Once he screwed that up, football continued on. And when he killed himself, football trod right over his corpse.