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Sports biz: Fashion statement

Between the annual player draft in April and the first kickoff of the first pre-season game in August, there is a rare period of fallow time in which the National Football League – despite its around-the-clock television channel and daily blog entries posted by teams and the occasional early-look profiles written by sports beat reporters – is relatively starved for affection, conceding the sports spotlight briefly to the NBA and NHL playoffs, and the comparatively languid rhythms of the baseball season.

This summer, however, that void has been filled to overflowing by Aaron Hernandez, a former marquee player for the New England Patriots who was charged with murdering a 27-year old acquaintance.

On the playing field of public sentiment, Odin Lloyd’s violent death is sadly, ironically and yet quite expectedly the afterthought here. The news coverage, the live radio commentary, the Twitter conversation, the water-cooler talk, was all instead about the grandiosity of the alleged crime, the sordidness of it, the celebrity element, the caught-in-the-headlights, scandalous, implausible quality of the story that nobody, not the NFL, not the victim, not a star football player, would have ever wanted.

That the Hernandez tragedy created a crisis for the league and his team is undeniable. Swift and decisive actions taken by the Patriots management in light of Hernandez’s arrest testify to the threat the events posed to the delicate relationship between team and fan. The day of the tight end’s arrest the team released Hernandez from the roster.

Two weeks later, team owner Robert Kraft, upon returning from a trip, held court with local beat reporters, insisting the team was unaware Hernandez had, let’s say, unresolved anger issues. And in between, a cut-to-the-heart gesture by the Patriots: an invitation for fans to swap NFL-licensed jerseys adorned with the name Hernandez for new team apparel bearing the surname of another player (presumably one who will stay out of jail) for free.

It was this part of the breakup that I found riveting, sad and appropriate. A team hardly known for its subtlety had deftly identified and addressed, at least symbolically, the most confounding question of all to spring from the Hernandez affair and myriad other incidents in which players have been exposed as thugs: How do I preserve the separation of reality and fantasy that is part of being a fan? How do I love my team when its players take off their helmets and there are bad guys underneath?

I found the Patriots’ jersey-swap idea remarkable because it laid this dilemma bare. By tacit admission, it confronted the discomfort among the faithful, many of whom had jerseys bearing the name of an alleged killer hanging next to the autumn sweaters in their closets. It was a complete counterpoint to the NFL’s very orchestrated reaction upon the publication of the 1998 book “Pros and Cons,” in which writers Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger methodically exposed the criminal records of numerous NFL players. Then, the league employed a time-tested PR technique known as “kill the messenger,” lambasting the book as a shrill and overblown exaggeration.

Here, it was different. Different not just because of the seriousness of the alleged act, but perhaps because in the age of immediate digital reporting and reaction there is nowhere left to duck for cover. The debate no longer ends when the press conference is concluded. It is constant, and it forces sports teams that depend on fan allegiance – just as it forces any public organization – to become transparent, and to act willfully and decisively to respond to public sentiment. 

In cynical moments, I suppose it’s easy to deride the Patriots’ jersey swap as an empty PR stunt. But I think it was something else. I wasn’t there, but I imagine the act of redeeming that shirt for something new and untainted – a Brady or a Gronkowski or even, now, a Tebow – was a somber act for some fans, and at the same time a redemptive one. It has been a bad year in the New England area, and the Hernandez news only added to an inescapable funk. But it was still the middle of summer when fans lined up at Gillette Stadium to exchange their Hernandez jerseys, and the sun was out, and in only a month or so they would line up again and start playing football. They would put the helmets back on and play.

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Stewart Schley

Stewart Schley writes about sports, media and technology from Denver. Read this and Schley’s past columns on the Web at cobizmag.com and email him at stewart@stewartschley.com

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