The effort to erase Aaron Hernandez started with jerseys.
Last month, the Patriots offered free exchanges of any officially licensed No. 81 Hernandez jersey for that of another player. The old jerseys were shredded. Every scrap of gear bearing the tight end’s once-celebrated name or number was removed from the NFL’s online shop.
“Oops,” the error message reads in red letters. “We couldn’t find the page you requested.”
It’s as if Hernandez never existed.
The 23-year-old waits in a cell at the Bristol County House of Correction in North Dartmouth, Mass., charged with first-degree murder and five firearms violations in the June death of Odin Lloyd. Reports linked Hernandez, long since released from his $40 million contract by the Patriots, to multiple other killings.
A probable cause hearing is Thursday, as his life outside the jail disappears.
This isn’t new. In an era in which Google makes certain nothing is forgotten — that errant tweet, that ill-advised picture, that NFL star turned inmate No. 174954 — the world of sports hasn’t stopped trying to hurl undesirables down the memory hole.
Hernandez is the latest example. Joe Paterno’s 400th victory? Erased by the NCAA. Chris Webber’s days with the Fab Five at Michigan? Like they never happened, down to elimination from media guides and hiding banners from the 1992 and 1993 Final Fours in storage. Reggie Bush? Good luck finding even one picture of the former Heisman winner who became an NCAA outlaw on USC’s campus.
When they’re no longer useful, the relentless hagiography turns into an all-consuming effort to remove every reminder they happened.
An Associated Press story once described the methodical purge of one man’s suddenly troublesome life. His pictures disappeared from public places. Stories that once mentioned his pivotal career now ignored the man. His books were no longer heaped on store shelves. Strategy previously attributed to him was stripped of any connection. No indication remained that the man ever existed.
A coach or former player from the latest university body-slammed by the NCAA? Nope. Try Nikita Khrushchev after he was removed as leader of the Soviet Union in 1964.
In the classic novel “1984,” George Orwell described the technique of erasing someone from society as creating “unpersons.”
After the murder charge, the NCAA’s official Web store quietly removed its array of Hernandez memorabilia, from autographed Florida jerseys to miniature football helmets.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame ditched his photo.
At Florida, his name and likeness were removed from the locker room, football offices and a team area. Saws cut away the black slab at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium commemorating Hernandez’s All-America season in 2009. A blank piece of rock replaced it. Like Hernandez was never there.
Even his high school, Bristol Central in Bristol, Conn., wiped him from the school’s trophy case. Plaques, trophies, jerseys bearing his name were removed, according to The Providence Journal.
A trading card company replaced stickers of Hernandez with the wholesome and noodle-armed Tim Tebow.
“We’re going about our business,” one Patriots player told CBS Sports, “like Aaron Hernandez never existed.”
But is the collective revision of history a good thing?
Sure, no right-minded store would host a rack of Hernandez jerseys or sell his autograph. Never mind the exorbitant prices jerseys now fetch on sites like eBay, like the $7,500 asked for one game-used one scrawled with his autograph. But there’s a line between celebrating someone whose life, regardless of guilt or innocence, has drifted tragically off course, and running from an uncomfortable reality.
The scramble to erase Hernandez sidesteps difficult questions about how this happened in favor of a quick public relations fix. Cutting away a brick or shredding hundreds of jerseys is an easy short-term solution. No one will complain.
But what if Hernandez is acquitted? Does the brick go back up? Does he return to video games? Is he rehabilitated?
The gestures are ultimately empty in a world consumed by documenting every minute. We can’t airbrush Hernandez out of his time with Florida and the Patriots. We can’t pretend they didn’t happen. We can’t pretend a man charged with murder wasn’t recruited and cheered and drafted and signed and lauded there. We can’t pretend he didn’t catch 175 passes for the Patriots any easier than pretending he wasn’t hauled from his home in handcuffs.
Those environments, for better or worse, helped create the man in the jail cell today. He can’t be erased. He exists.