Most sports fans in Northeast Florida first
became acquainted with Aaron Hernandez when he was a tight end on that incredible University of Florida offense a few years ago. Hernandez, Percy Harvin and Tim Tebow made Gators games must-see TV.
Yes, he tested positive for marijuana, but folks who know the history of "Gainesville Green" know the temptation and the ubiquity of the so-called sticky-icky in the 352. Yes, there were mutterings about so-called character concerns before he was drafted by the Patriots in the fourth round. But these were minor cavils. Hernandez looked like a steal of a draft pick at the time. Fast-forward a couple of years, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick looked even more prescient. Fast-forward to today, and the revisionist history of the "long view" takes hold.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King battled with some Twitter followers about the wisdom of the Hernandez draft pick recently, in the wake of Hernandez being scrubbed from the Patriots roster and NFL history. Could he still be called a good pick? Yes, King argued, given his statistical contribution to the team before the guy was arrested on murder charges.
And — in my opinion, at least — King's right. As interested observers of the Jaguars' process, we've seen almost two decades of drafts here, and two years of starter-level "elite" production is more than can be hoped for from your standard fourth-round pick. No one could have rationally foreseen the accusations of murder and evidence destruction in which Hernandez became ensnared. In part, it's because what the NFL calls "character concerns" so often have nothing to do with anything beyond a bad result on a urinalysis for cannabis (the only reliable substance testing, given how long it stays in the system).
Rather than look at real-deal character issues, the league and its media adjuncts (ESPN and other broadcast partners) reduce the whole matter to how clean a player's urine is. For further relevant context, look at Arizona Cardinals free safety Tyrann Mathieu and the discussion about his failed tests at LSU after this year's draft. ("SEC speed" sometimes comes with failed drug tests excused by SEC coaches.)
Moving beyond the bong, Hernandez's behavior had red flags. In 2010, Hernandez launched an expletive-filled tirade when veteran wide receiver Wes Welker told the rookie tight end to figure out how to use the video equipment on his own, according to a June 21 story in The Boston Globe.
"I never talk about other guys, but I will say I have never embraced — never believed in — anything Aaron Hernandez stood for," former Patriots offensive lineman Matt Light told the Dayton Daily News.
Taking the word of one player or reporter over another is a dangerous game, though. Hernandez definitely has some sticking by him.
"Aaron is a great guy and a great friend of mine and a great teammate," former Pats teammate Deion Branch told The Albany Herald. "I love him to death, and it was shocking to hear his name involved in this situation."
Gators tailback Kelvin Taylor, the son of Gators and Jaguars legend Fred Taylor, tweeted, "Free My bro Chico." Hernandez has been lovingly referred to as Chico by Florida players and fans for years. The tweet was later deleted.
Who's right in this case? NFL players seem disproportionately prone to criminal accusations; as of the end of June, 28 pro football players have been arrested since the Super Bowl, according to a U-T San Diego database. Obviously, charges against Hernandez are more heinous than many of those arrests.
But there seems to be a correlation between criminal activity and being a high-profile professional sports player. UF players have a dark history with the law, during or after their time in Gainesville, for everything from DUI (former wide receiver Frankie Hammond Jr.) to street fighting (Janoris Jenkins) to gun charges (former Gators and Jaguars cornerback Dee Webb).
Of course, if any of these guys lacked world-class athletic talent, we wouldn't hear or care about their crimes. Aaron Hernandez — whatever his involvement in one or more murders over the years — just happened to be a great player wearing the right colors for a while.
We can question his choices and squandered opportunities. We might also ask ourselves why we care about athletes on any level, allowing thug athletes any more space in our minds than the thugs down the block. While we're at it, we might also ask ourselves why there's a spirited bidding war for the remaining Hernandez jerseys on eBay.