by Rev. Irene Monroe
Former Patriot tight-end Aaron Hernandez’s suicide leaves us with more questions than answer. Many wonder what were Hernandez’s last dying words expressed in the three handwritten notes to loved ones left next to a Bible in his cell. CBS Boston reports he conveyed “I love you and please don’t cry.”
That message anyone can wrapped their mind around. However, the big question mark Hernandez leaves many of us scratching our heads is the popular Christian Bible verse “John 3:16” scrawled in red ink on his forehand. The scripture, the 16th verse of the third chapter of the Book of John is one of the central tenets of the Christian faith. It states: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Given the violent nature of the game of football and Hernandez’s personal acts of violence-indicted on charges for first-degree murder without the possibility of parole – one wonders how did the John 3:16 verse factored in his life?
While it is not uncommon for the verse to be invoked at one’s death bed petitioning forgiveness John 3:16 is also part and parcel of the Christian conservative evangelical culture of today’s football. With the ongoing battle contesting religion in the public sphere-such as Ten Commandments Monuments on state capitol grounds, prayer at public schools, and religious symbols in public spaces, to name a few-the fusion of religion and football is not only seamless but it’s also an expected outward expression of one’s faith.
And, while it’s common to see some football players dance after a touchdown it’s equally common to see them glorifying God on the gridiron either by pointing their index finger upward or kneeling in a moment of prayer openly expressing thanks.
Many give thanks to Rollen Stewart (a.k.a “Rock n Rollen” or “Rainbow) a born again Christian, now serving three consecutive life sentences, who danced at football games strategically positioning himself behind goal posts donning an afro rainbow wig with a John 3:16 placard throughout the 1970’s – 80’s. But it’s Hernandez’s former Florida Gator teammate Tim Tebow, an outspoken evangelical Christian who re-popularized the verse when he wrote John 3:16 on his eye black during the 2009 BCS championship game. With 316 passing yards for the game and his ten completions averaged 31.6 yards a piece Tebow was viewed by Christians to be the living manifestation of God speaking to the world though him. And, their evidence was in Google reporting the day after the game that the verse John 3:16 was the #1 ranked hot trends search.
There is really no easy answer as to why Christian conservatives are as religious about attending football games as they are about attending church, but Mark Edmundson author of “Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game” sums up the conundrum as this:
“Football is a game beloved by conservatives. Conservatives love football; conservatives love faith. What more is there to say?”
When quarterback Colin Kaepernick stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement by remaining seated for the playing of the National Anthem many Christian conservatives were outraged and felt he flagrantly violated the teams collective act of honoring both God and country, especially America’s military servicepersons. And, from some Christian conservatives their verbal attacks against Kaepernick’s stance were as violent as the game itself.
With Jesus lauded as the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) football highlights religious conservatives warring tensions with accepted forms of violence as American patriotism and Christian triumphalism.
The sanctification of violence in America’s football is traceable to the Muscular Christianity Movement in the 1980’s. Muscular Christians promoted fierce athletic competition as a positive manly trait building not only strength but also character.
“There is a precious discipline in danger … I consider no man educated who is not educated to meet danger, grapple with it, and conquer it. And any system of gymnastics which leaves out danger is an emasculated system,” an American Muscular Christian wrote in 1868.
Aaron Hernandez was a great football player. He was a member of the BCS National Championship, was given the honorific title of All-American, and as a college junior given the John Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight-end in 2009.
Some might argue that Hernandez was the embodiment of the game of football whose violence on the field didn’t have an immediate kill switch for when he was off the field. Because of his suicide Hernandez’s family wants him examined for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease due to head injury that comes with the game as an occupational hazard.
I still don’t know why so many conservative Christians embrace and cheer the violence of this sport in light of the many devastating outcomes. However, in a May 2015 article in the “Guardian” Jack Moore in “Muscular Christianity and American sport’s undying love of violence” wrote not the reasons why Americans love this sport but rather about its dire consequences:
“As long as sports fans believe brutality creates nobility, the NFL will leave broken bodies and minds in its wake.”
I think Hernandez came to understand he was a broken man and perhaps irreparably. And, I believe in his last moments of life with the clock ticking and time running out John 3:16 was Hernandez’s Hail Mary Pass asking for forgiveness.