GLADIATOR: THE PODCAST YOU NEED TO BINGE RIGHT NOW
Recently, I started a part time job bartending because LIFE IS HARD Y’ALL. Turns out that Sundays in the fall are a sacred time time for America. Who knew so many people liked football?
My only exposure to tossing ‘round the ol’ pigskin before this job was the Da Bears dudes from SNL and the popularity of the Super Bowl Shuffle. In the last two months, I’ve learned what a “down” is, the history of ties in the NFL, accumulated an unreasonable amount of knowledge of Gisele and Tom Brady’s relationship, and that the Patriots are trash. I’ve been living in Chicago for over two decades and never have appreciated this town’s love for sports. I mean these fools are still showing up at the bar week after week for a team that hasn’t won Super Bowl since 1986!
For reference 1986 is the year that the Space Challenger disintegrated, the Nissan Pintara was produced, the top song was That’s What Friends Are For by Dionne and Friends, Yngwie Malmsteen was still relevant, Labyrinth was released, and if you’re like WHAT ARE THESE THINGS?? That’s my point! The only thing about 1986 that anyone remembers is the Chicago Bears winning the Super Bowl and still these folks buy all the jerseys, put on the face paint, and huddle down in front of tvs and on stands to watch a gaggle of grown ass men get concussions.
Sports has never been much of a interest of mine, but murder most certainly has ←Damn! That was a dope segue, not really, but let’s talk crime. Y’all know I’m basically a detective and now I have a budding interest in football. When I found out one of my top podcast distributors, Wondery, home of Dr. Death, Dirty John, and The Wonderland Murders, was releasing a podcast about football and prison, I couldn’t help but hit play.
Gladiator is a 6 part series about Aaron Hernandez told by reporters at the Boston Globe (where you can read the story if you hate podcasts). It’s a tragic story about a troubled kid turned football star turned murderer. It’s a tough story.
For many years, I have mocked anyone interested in football or any sports, so in writing this, I felt it only fair to pull in the one person I’ve mocked the hardest to tell him I think I might actually like football. I feel that my pal, Murphy Row, is a great fit to try to help me understand football culture and explain to me why a football player gets paid $2 million dollars and the half naked cheerleaders only get $25 a day. OH, that’s right. THE PATRIARCHY.
ELIZABETH: Murphy, first, I want to say I’m sorry. In the years I have known you, I have mercilessly mocked you about football. I was wrong. You were right. But the Minnesota Vikings are still probably not going to win regardless of their lovely color combinations. Tell me a little about your love for football.
MURPHY: I accept your apology, and don’t worry, being mocked is the only way I really know how to feel love.
I have tough relationship with football. I started as a middle linebacker for high school team in Minnesota that has produced a Heisman trophy winner, Super Bowl Champions, and NFL Pro Bowlers. Even as the worst player, football was an outlet for my teenage aggression and a place to find community with men. On the other hand, I suffered at least 6 concussions, almost died on the field trying to play through a very serious illness I mistook for the flu (because you know, real men just tough it out and play through the pain), I still suffer from the long term effects of multiple serious brain injuries.
My dad played fantasy football for 30 years before it became popular. This was back when you called in your line up to to a human, on the landline, checked a physical newspaper for stats the following day, and calculated your score with a paper and pencil. My brother and I, as young children, were brought to the basement of a bar to help my dad draft his team. Football has deep roots in the loving and wonderful bond I have with my father and brother. On the other hand, I just barely have my gambling addiction under control.
Oh yeah, and I love being a Vikings fan. It has taught me how to hope in the face of continued defeat and misery, a skill I find priceless in 2018.
This whole background is why I loved Gladiator so much. It is a rich story that touches on all the nuance of our cultural relationship with football. Sport, community, opportunity, violence, head injuries, toxic masculinity, economics, crime, and even sexuality. This one story is the perfect jumping off point for so many topics that are seamlessly woven into the pageantry and excitement football in America.
ELIZABETH: What did you think when I suggested this podcast to you? How much did you know before hearing it? Initial reactions?
MURPHY: My first thought was that if you were sending this to me, there must be more to these murders than I thought! I was very familiar with the facts of the Aaron Hernandez story. I had him on my fantasy football team his last year in the NFL. I knew about the murders and his death in jail, and I was intrigued at what the podcast series would delve into because it's not a mystery what actually happened, but when you dive in, there is so much to talk about. They did not disappoint.
My initial thoughts:
1. I still believe his apparent suicide in prison could have been a murder.
2. I think the discussion around CTE is necessary, and a factor in Hernandez’ mental well being, but this is not a CTE story. This is a story of an abused child brought up in a toxic environment, who turned out to be a violent individual, who never dealt with his demons. Football gave him opportunity and everyone used him for their own gain while looking there other way in regards to his personal issues.
As a former player with a history of head injuries, a man who has worked intensely to understand my own masculinity, and fan of the NFL, I see very clearly where my fascination fits in with this story. Elizabeth, I am curious where you are drawn to? Where you you find yourself identifying with this story as a newer football fan, (probably) without major head trauma, and a female observer?
ELIZABETH: It was a plot twist in my life to think about sports. I was opposite of you, sports was not a thing I grew up with or encouraged to do because I was born with a vagina. Though, by the time I was in 8th grade, I could hand sew a football that I would gift to you along with a tater tot casserole, which personally I think are better skills. Even though I started a major sports league in Chicago that was full contact, I ignored “sports.”
You’re probably the first person that I’ve ever really spoke with about the culture of sports and how it works. Last year, you told me about the Vikings possibly becoming the first NFL team to play the Super Bowl on their turf AND I HAD SO MANY QUESTIONS! Like is it legal to have horns on your helmet? Friendship does that to people, make them interested in things they may not have been before.
Aaron Hernandez needed better friends. As a matter of fact, he could have used better parents. His dad sounds like a real asshole.
MURPHY: We are all a product of our environment. There are plenty of people who grow up in abhorrent home situations with abusive relationships that rise above their circumstance and become well rounded, yet damaged, adults. I think you cannot underestimate the effect his father had on his life, but I also believe there is an aspect of violence and aggression that is learned, and an aspect that is a genetic predisposition. I think Aaron, probably was predisposed to violence, was raised to be violent, and then found glory, opportunity, and acumen in a sport that fosters the development of your violent side. I could never turn on that violent side on the field. The contact and the aggression was something I had to learn how to incorporate into my play, and I still wasn’t very good at it. I can picture a person who has a tendency towards violence, finding acceptance of that trait on the football field and being encouraged to strengthen that emotional muscle. Aaron Hernandez is the cautionary tale of the worst manifestation of this. Football success was a catalyst in his violent development.
ELIZABETH: How about his queerness in that environment? It made me wonder if he could even understand his sexuality when his growing up in such a macho man environment - teammates poking fun at being gay or that Aaron’s alleged lover remaining in the closet. The second worst part for me was listening to the broadcasters’ revel in the rumors about Aaron being bi. This is on national television and it made me hurt for Aaron, his family, and all the queer kids watching that air. I was reminded that growing up as a girl, bisexuality as women was a good thing, not bad. I feel like the girls that were lesbians were never harassed for that, but if a boy wore a pink Izod, he was gonna get his ass kicked.
MURPHY: What a harsh reality for a queer youth to be surrounded by a culture that has no room for anything other than hypermasculinity and one notion of acceptable sexuality. I think you are onto something, he probably never had a space to learn and accept his sexuality. On the other hand, he learned that he could fulfill his desires in secret and because of his football prowess, the rest of the world would continue to only see what he wanted them to see. I think we see this behavior reflected in his criminal actions as an adult and how in a prison phone call he claims he did everything he could to take advantage of his opportunity. He does not connect his actions in his secret life with the consequences in his public life.
Sadly, at the end, I think the secret of his sexuality plays a role in his death by suicide. Much like we see time and time again with queer teens stuck in unhealthy environments, suicide is used as a unfortunate alternative to facing a secret that threatens the identity we present to the world. Let me be clear, his sexuality is likely a small factor in the suicide, behind mental illness, drug use exaggerating mental illness, and the daunting prospect of life in prison, but I think the idea of facing a secret that would have completely undermined his hypermasculine public persona might have been the straw that broke the camel's back.
Were you struck by how so many people after his death, admitted to seeing glimpses of the private Aaron, whether is was his sexuality, his angry outbursts, drug use, or mental health issues, but did and said nothing at the time? Or do that seem like the norm, we notice things but we keep our noses out of other people’s business?
ELIZABETH: YES. I mean that’s what kept me going for the podcast. The sense of regret from his family, friends, and mentors was DEEP AF and so sincere. When the high school coach admitted that he shouldn’t have let Aaron leave early for college, I was tore up. As a parent, there is a point where you have to let your kids make decisions. Sometimes, it can make a situation worse if you bear down. I mean we don’t ever really know and the fear of mistakes never ends.
When I mention this story to people, folks are usually pretty cold about what happened with Hernandez. WHERE ARE YOUR HEARTS PEOPLE? Sure, he didn’t have to be such a dick, but he was raised by a dick and surrounded by dicks and CAN WE GET RID OF THE GODDAMN PATRIARCHY ALREADY?? GOMEZ SMASH!
We have to wrap this up, but I still have so many questions about football like does Aaron Rodgers have a special touchdown dance? He seems too uptight for that. Aaron Rodgers does not like fun.
The podcast takes us through Aaron’s youth, his college career, the trial, his prison life, his death, and ultimately his legacy. The biggest lesson, I got from this is that I never, ever, ever ever want to go to prison. What would I do without my bath loofah?! But, let’s talk about his suicide and the damage to his brain. I agree with you, his suicide as described in this story, seems a bit questionable and out of character for Hernandez, so I could easily see it being a murder or revenge. But, also suicide if he’s doing those crazy ass prison drugs.
MURPHY: I think the suicide is an important part of the story. Taking his own life is a sign of how disturbed he really was. Maybe I watch too much HBO, but there were enough people that wanted him dead that would have the ability to make a prison murder happen. Bribe or intimated the right people and make a murder look like a suicide. He was in bed with some bad people. But that is far fetched. In the real world, I think his death by suicide is important to the conversation around CTE.
There have been several high profile suicides of former players who had severe CTE. There is not enough study yet to draw a definitive link, largely due to the nature of how hard it is to prove cause and effect in a research setting, but there is a correlation. The effect of CTE is alarming and the response, or lack thereof from the NFL is even more alarming. The NFL is distancing themselves from their former players, and once you are not the star they need on the field, they cut you loose to wither and die. It’s a violent sport. Either own that fact and take care of the former player with well funded research and post-career care. Or fundamentally change the game and make it safer. The NFL cannot continue to ignore this issue.
ELIZABETH: Boy, yes! Does this mean we’ll need to review Steve McNair, Fall of a Titan? Just kidding. I’m too busy listening about Barry Bonds and steroids. By the way, do you know where I can get some steroids? I don’t need a lot just enough to get rid of my beer belly.
I love you, Murphy, and your damaged little brain! Thank you for doing this with me. Literally, you’re almost the only person I know who watches sports. Any last thoughts?
MURPHY: Rodgers does have a signature touchdown celebration, and I can’t wait to teach you the nuance of it. Also, that's not how steroids work, they generally add mass. You are thinking of cocaine.
I guess my last point is jump off of your compassion. The world needs more compassion. We jump to villainizing so easily. We are all the product of circumstances, AND we are all still responsible for our choices. The more often we can meet the bad choices of others with compassion and an attempt at understanding the how and the why of those terrible choices, the better chance we have at mitigating the pain we add to a world already overflowing with it.
I love you too and this was really fun, in the ass backwards way it is fun to discuss murder, suicide, patriarchy, and mental illness with intelligent people. I hope you can continue to avoid major head trauma and remain on the super-fan side of your true crime obsession and not the subject.