Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The winds of change: NFL scandals

Aaron Hernandez, tight-end for the New England Patriots, was arrested this morning by the Massachusetts State Police for undisclosed charges. There was widespread speculation that the charges would be obstruction-related, following reports that the security system at Hernandez's home--along with his personal cell phone--had been destroyed in the hours after the murder of Odin Lloyd on late June 15th or early June 16th. There are also reports that Hernandez hired a cleaning crew for his home, prior to the body being discovered by police.

It all makes Hernandez look very, very guilty. Maybe not of murder, but certainly of knowing the details and of trying to cover things up. That said, Hernandez has now been formally charged with murder. Yet in response to just his arrest and the above various bits of public knowledge, the New England Patriots released Aaron Hernandez from the team well before the charges were announced:
"A young man was murdered last week and we extend our sympathies to the family and friends who mourn his loss," the statement from the Patriots read. "Words cannot express the disappointment we feel knowing that one of our players was arrested as a result of this investigation. We realize that law enforcement investigations into this matter are ongoing. We support their efforts and respect the process. At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do."
Got that? The Patriots organization is not waiting for the dust to settle, for Hernandez to have his day in court, it's done with him, end of story. Hernandez now moves to waiver-status and he could be claimed by another team. But will any other team take him? Doubtful.

One might ask if the Patriots would have responded differently if it was Tom Brady we were talking about. And I guess that's a fair question. But of course, Brady would likely have never put himself in such a position. Moreover, Hernandez is a star player in his own right; he's not a second or third tier player at all. In dumping him, the Patriots risk a big salary cap hit. Clearly, the people running the show there knew this is going to turn into a no-win situation.

For those that say Hernandez's release shows what a class act the Patriots organization is, how other teams might have stood by their star player, even helped him if possible, let's remember this is the same organization that got hit with major penalties in 2007 for signal stealing (the so-called "Spygate" scandal). So let's not pretend the Patriots organization is significantly more "classy" than any other one in the NFL. It's still almost all about winning. And PR.

Which leads us to the obvious comparison here: the Ray Lewis murder trial in 2000. Then--a mere thirteen years ago--the Baltimore Ravens organization stood by Lewis largely throughout the ordeal. He was never released and following the plea deal he reached with prosecutors, Lewis went on to play another thirteen seasons in the NFL, all with the Ravens. Many people to this day believe Lewis literally got away with murder. But he went on to win two Super Bowls, along with various league-issued accolades like Pro Bowl selections and Defensive Player of the Year titles.

Hernandez's future--despite things only being in their preliminary stages--looks far more bleak. He's on his own. His endorsement deal are falling off, and it's likely only a matter of time until his agent drops him as well, given that he is unlikely to play another game in the NFL anytime soon.

Beyond the Hernandez and Lewis cases, however, there are a plethora of other similar cases involving current and former NFL players. And there is little doubt that the number of such cases--ones involving murder, attempted murder, assault, drugs, and the like--have gone up exponentially in recent decades. Compare these cases to one of the biggest NFL "scandals"--if not the biggest--of the 1960's: the Hornung/Karras betting scandal of 1963, when future hall of famers Paul Hornung and Alex Karras were both suspended for the season, following news that both had been wagering on football games. Shocking.

And make no mistake, there was murder in 1963. There was drug use, domestic violence, and the like as well. But such things weren't commonplace in the NFL. We can easily note what is different now: the professionalization of college football, plain and simple. The NFL players of yesteryear weren't millionaires, by and large. Many struggled financially, both during and after their playing careers. Endorsements were few and far between and life after football meant--more often than not--heading back to the anonymity of the general workforce.

But more significantly, the players were real college players, meaning they were substantially no different than their fellows in school, they just also played football. Sure, they enjoyed perks on campus because of their status. But the schools they attended were not being largely bankrolled by football monies, unlike today. And the players who were recruited from high school were intent on going to college, regardless of football; they were expected to have the basic skill set needed to succeed in college.

Not so, today. Now, college sports is big money and what matters is whether or not a given potential recruit can make the team better (and therefore make the school money). His ability--or lack thereof--to succeed in college isn't an afterthought, it's not even a consideration. In response to this changing dynamic, the NCAA has take a number of steps, but clearly none of them have had an impact, as evidenced by the lack of character exhibited by far too many young NFL players, year after year. Sure, the huge salaries play a role, but I think the problems arise from much deeper issues, going back to high school and the lack of real academic standards for the athletically gifted, along with the horribly destructive belief that athletics represents a "way out" of poverty.

Hernandez grew up in Bristol, Connecticut. He reportedly ran with gangs as a youth, failed drug tests while in college, and--not all that long ago--shot a man in the face in Miami. His appearance hardly suggests he is the prototypical all-American football hero, either. And while it is certainly unfair to generalize about people based on appearance alone, there is a lot more than just that here. Aaron Hernandez is very much the "total package," when it comes to a player who is likely to end up on the wrong side of the law. He acts the part and looks the part. So his current fortunes are hardly surprising.

More surprising is the rapidity with which the Patriots kicked him to the curb. And hopefully, this is a trend that will continue in the NFL. But at the end of the day, the real locus of problems is in the college system, as the feeder to the pro level. There, the winds of change still seem to be at a standstill. Thus, we are likely to be treated to more Aaron Hernandezes, not fewer.

Cheers, all.