Aaron Hernandez: The NFL’s Nightmarish Reality

New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez (81) catches a pass as he works a bit after practice on the second day of training camp at the NFL football team's facility in Foxborough, Mass., Friday, July 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez (81) catches a pass as he works a bit after practice on the second day of training camp at the NFL football team's facility in Foxborough, Mass., Friday, July 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez (81) catches a pass as he works a bit after practice on the second day of training camp at the NFL football team’s facility in Foxborough, Mass., Friday, July 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

Guns. Violence. Murder. That’s not a good combination for any professional sports league to associate its brand with. It certainly isn’t a good look for the National Football League (NFL).

It is not the fault of the NFL when wayward individuals decide to go knucklehead. It is not the responsibility of the league to watch over its employees 24 hours a day to keep them from conducting and engaging in reckless behavior.

The burden, however, does fall on the NFL to vet any potential employee to the full extent of its hiring and dischargeable powers. The NFL has done an excellent job of protecting the Shield from distractions that would try to diminish the highly reputable image of the league. Murder, however, changes the conversation entirely.

The NFL family received a jolt last winter when Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot to death his baby daughter’s mother before taking his own life at the team’s training facility. Now the NFL has the Aaron Hernandez murder case to deal with.

This is not something that Commissioner Roger Goodell can just wish away and make disappear.  The New England Patriots can’t just think that by cutting Hernandez that this will all get swept under the rug and forgotten about by the time training camp rolls. It’s one thing to control the message. It’s quite another thing when the circumstances of life supercedes any talking point drafted up.

This is what the NFL and the Patriots must grapple with as one of their own has been charged with murder. Hernandez is not the first nor will be the last professional athlete to come under fire and scrutiny for his alleged actions.  But the disturbing pattern of NFL players running amok with the law when it comes to firearms and felonous behavior is becoming more and more disingenuous and less and less tolerable.

It is certainly not helping the NFL brand and its international popularity. It was just four years ago on July 4 that star quarterback Steve McNair was inhumanely shot to death by a woman reported to be his girlfriend as he slept.

Perceived to be a borderline Hall of Famer, McNair was one of the good guys in the NFL, a true community hero who held true to his Mississippi roots of humility and graciousness. The murder of McNair sent shockwaves throughout the league and the nation.

Married with four children at the time of his death, McNair’s murder is still as raw and hurtful to think about today as it was in 2009.

That’s just one footnote of firearms and tragedy linking their way to the NFL.  A year before McNair’s untimely passing, New York Giants wide receiver and Super Bowl hero Plaxico Burress accidently shot himself. The NFL got unwanted notoriety from this firearm mishap and Burress wound up doing a couple years of jail time because of it.

This was another black eye for the NFL. However, Burress shooting himself in a nightclub pales in comparison to the horrific murder-suicide acted out in December of 2012 by Belcher, who took his life after shooting Kasandra Perkins nine times.

Once again, the firearms issue surrounding NFL players rose its ugly head as wails of another high-profile domestic violence incident put that problem front and center in America’s consciousness again. That deadly scenario wasn’t enough to prepare the league for the latest bombshell of murder and the use of guns alleged against one of its brightest stars.

Hernandez‘s life was set. The former Patriots tight end had what appeared to be a wonderful life ahead of him. He was rich. He was successful. A year ago, Hernandez signed a large multi-million dollar contract. He had what he wanted. He seemingly had all that he needed in life. Hernandez was one of the fortunate ones.

He was one one of the few athletes to make it to the NFL. Hernandez stood apart from most.

He was a star. He has been heralded  as one of the elite players to have played the position of tight end. Money, fame and all the luxuries of life had been afforded the -6-foot-1, 245-pound Hernandez. He had the woman of his dreams. He even went the route of putting down a family.

AaronhernandezBeing part of the Patriots had been looked upon as something as enriching to his life.

All of that doesn’t matter anymore. It appears at the moment that the imaginary cinderfella lifestyle of  this particular particular professional athlete was just a smoke signal covering up the real personality traits that Hernandez embodies. It’s not a good one to embrace.

Just a year after coming off signing a $40 million dollar contract with the Patriots, Hernandez finds himself locked up behind bars, charged with murder. At the moment, Hernandez stands accused, along with several other men, of killing a semipro football player, a man reportedly considered to be his friend.

Adding to his woes, Hernandez, charged of leading the execution-style killing of Odin Lloyd, is now being investigated in a double-homicide. The best thing the Patriots and the NFL did was immediately cut ties with Hernandez.  Great.

But the question remains how does someone like Hernandez even afforded the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in the NFL? Was he vetted enough by the Patriots before they made him a fourth-round pick in 2010?

It would seem to me in a logical sense that if you’re pouring in millions of dollar into an investment that you would make sure that you would done your due dilligence on that investment. It seems to me that the Patriots punted and looked the other way when it came to earlier transgressions committed by Hernandez, despite a history of shaky off-the-field behavior.

The NFL has done a tremendous job of cleaning up and getting rid of wayward personalities. The NFL is a brand. The integrity of the league is something Mr. Goodell and the 32 team owners have done a masterful job of promoting and addressing. It is well-known that the Patriots have one of the most respected franchises in all of sports under the watchful eyes of team owner Robert Kraft.

However, it is pretty difficult to separate the fact that one of your own has been alleged to have committed a crime of murder, especially when they were one f your most valued employees. The NFL has been down this road before, though, having to deal with the O.J. Simpson murder and civil trials.

The league survived those high-end drama spectacles. The NFL made it through the attention paid to Rae Carruth’s murderous hit on a young woman he impregnated. The league is still standing. In fact, the NFL is thriving as America’s most popular sport. It will survive the Hernandez fiasco.

But this story is not going away any time soon.  The use of guns-good and bad-will linger. It doesn’t matter how much the Patriots and the NFL try to control message. The public sees that there is a pattern here.The pattern is one of destructive behavior.

There is something inherently wrong when professional athletes pretend they are part of a video game or try to re-enact grand illusions of the Wild, Wild West. This is an issue that the NFL must continue to address and stay in front of with the men it employs as professional football players. Otherwise, more of the same will continue to happen.

Dennis J. Freeman
About Dennis J. Freeman 1096 Articles
Dennis covers the NFL (San Diego Chargers), NBA (Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers), Major League Baseball (Los Angeles Dodgers) and NCAA sports (USC, UCLA, Long Beach State). As a professional journalist, Dennis has also covered and written on topics such as civil rights, politics and social justice. Dennis is a graduate of Howard University.