After his father died in 2006, Aaron Hernandez allegedly took to flashing the sign of the Bloods street gang and dressed in the Bloods' red color while attending Central Bristol High School in Bristol, Conn.
However, officials at the Bristol County Jail — where the former Patriot is being held on charges that he killed former O’Bryant football player Odin Lloyd — have said an evaluation of Hernandez’s possible gang affiliation was inconclusive.
Nevertheless, as O’Bryant and Burke prepare to play the first annual Odin Lloyd Memorial football game at 6:30 p.m. at O’Bryant Friday, it’s worthwhile to take a closer look at the extent of gang affiliations, or lack of gang affiliations, among current Boston Public School athletes.
According to a law enforcement officials with knowledge of the city’s gang problems, police are not expecting any problems at Friday’s game and, for the most part, BPS athletes aren’t tied to gangs. The officials said gang kids tend to be uninvolved in schools and don’t “rule” the district as they might in other cities.
With that said, others interviewed say that during the offseason, some BPS athletes run with low-level “street crews” that beef over territory. These so-called “street crews” aren’t full-blown gangs like the infamous Bloods and Crips, which aren’t well-established in Boston. But involvement with those “street crews” can lead to drug dealing and gun violence.
And while the majority of city league athletes don’t run with crews or gangs at all, that doesn’t mean they aren’t recruited. Unlike in the 1970s, 1980s, and part of the 1990s, athletes are no longer seen as untouchable by gangs.
“Picture this pool of kids out there that are very smart, very good-looking, and very cool,” said Boston Police Officer Frank Williams, who has helped run the Volley Against Violence tennis program at the Sportsmen’s Tennis Club in Dorchester since it was created five years ago. “We as police officers want them on our team. These are also the kids the drug boys want with them and also the gang bangers want.
“It’s like competing for Harvard grads. Everyone knows who they are. The gang bangers and drug boys offer bling bling and what we can offer is hanging out with cops. Which is not appealing at all but you’re not going to die.”
No name was bigger in BPS basketball last year than Malik James, the Brighton point guard who led the Bengals to the state championship before transferring to Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg this year.
James not only has a support system made up of coaches, teachers, and family that shielded him from gangs, but he also said the demands on athletes these days make it more difficult to try to play ball and run in the streets simultaneously.
"I know a couple of guys who try to play ball and be in the streets but I try to stay away," James said. "People do try to play ball and act tough and be in the streets, too, and sometimes it doesn't really work out. What you do off the court affects what you do on court.
"Whenever you try to be a tough guy, it will affect your basketball. You really can't do both. You can't juggle. You have to pick either or."
While most city schools require a 1.67 GPA to play sports, Brighton requires a 2.0. And Brighton football coach Randolph Abraham, who is also the school’s ninth grade dean of discipline, said he had players this year who had to drop off the team because they are in court so much.
“They are nice kids but they can’t commit to sports right now because they have trials and multiple court cases and they can’t be associated with the team,” he said.
Abraham said he had teammates involved in the streets when he played at Brighton from 1996 to 2000. But he noted that while the school struggled last year with students from different neighborhoods clashing, all the athletes got along.
“I know here our athletes are the ones everyone looks to, they are the role models,” he said. “They are the ones changing the culture. I trust all my kids.”
Abraham said teaching his players to respect girls is a bigger problem than keeping them off the streets. He and other coaches say they worry most about their students during the summer, when there is less structure and more temptation to join crews or gangs.
Barry Robinson, who retired as Boston English’s longtime boys’ basketball coach last year but remains the school’s athletics coordinator, said he had a promising freshman point guard about three or four years ago who was being highly recruited by a gang.
“He couldn’t take it anymore and his mother took him out and moved him out of town,” said Robinson, who ran with gangs himself as a youngster in Jamaica. “It was crazy. Is that stuff happening? Yeah. Gangs cannot exist or grow if they can’t recruit. They still recruit out there.”
That player fled the city around the same time the Boston Scholar Athletes program’s school-based academic resource centers called the Zones began giving athletes one more refuge from the streets.
“Now they have choices,” Robinson said. “Before they didn’t have choices. Now they have the choice and the support system and that’s the way it should be.
"The bottom line is, no one was paying attention to kids [before]. There were no resources in place for them. It was coaches and kids; that was it. Now there’s ton’s of resources. The BSA has been extremely helpful, big-time. There are social workers in the school that can monitor students and student support service teams.”
When athletes return to their neighborhoods, however, the line between being on the streets or not is much more blurred. It doesn’t always boil down to whether or not there are resources and safeguards at school.
“For the most part, kids definitely know people involved, because in some cases it’s their own family members,” said Burke football coach Byron Beaman. “So it’s hard."
Still, Beaman said, while BPS athletes might have to live in two different cultures -- their athletic life and their home life -- he said most of them aren't living a double life the way Aaron Hernandez did.
"At one time kids were doing that," he said. "Guys in the early '80s, late '90s, that’s definitely how it was. Nowadays guys in the streets are not playing football. Before, they weren’t making those choices and were trying to do both because athletes couldn’t leave it alone.”
About Boston Public Schools Sports BlogMore »
- Justin A. Rice -- A metro Detroit native, Rice is a Michigan State University (Go Spartans!) and Northeastern University graduate. Rice lives in the South End with his dog and wife, who unfortunately attended the University of Michigan ... his wife, that is. He curates the BPS Sports Blog and is always looking to write about city athletes with great stories. Have an idea? He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJustinRice or @BPSspts.
- Ryan Butler -- A Rhode Island native and avid Boston sports fan, Butler played basketball, baseball and football throughout his time in Barrington Public Schools. Now currently in his middler year at Northeastern University, he joins Boston.com as a correspondent for the site's BPS coverage. Have a story idea? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on his Twitter @butler_globe.