One question I’ve heard a lot since police began questioning Aaron Hernandez in connection with the death of 27-year-old Odin Lloyd last week: When are the Patriots going to say anything about his involvement or take any action against him?
So far, the Patriots have said little, other than the perfunctory statement, “We’re aware of the reports.” And saying anything beyond that at this point doesn’t make sense.
If they show him public support and it turns out that he’s involved in a murder, it makes the team look as if it is supporting a criminal. If the Patriots publicly denounce him and he is cleared of any wrongdoing, they will have demonized a potentially innocent person while possibly straining player-team relations.
As for taking any action against him, the Patriots don’t need to make any rash decisions. The collective bargaining agreement is complex, but it takes care of everything for them.
Now bear with us here:
Per NFL Players Association records, Hernandez is about to enter the second year of a seven-year contract extension worth $39.768 million, with $16 million guaranteed (a $12.5 million signing bonus, $3 million in salary between 2012-14, and $500,000 for a 2014 workout bonus).
The rest of the contract is “funny money” that Hernandez would receive only if he makes the team each year through 2018 and satisfies the terms of his workout and roster bonuses. For salary-cap purposes, the $12.5 million signing bonus is prorated over five years at $2.5 million each year between 2012-16.
But the Patriots built protection into the contract, and Hernandez didn’t get the $12.5 million signing bonus up front. Instead, he received $6 million at the time of signing, with deferred payments of $3.25 million each on March 31, 2013, and March 31, 2014.
“They protected themselves in case he was a knucklehead,” an agent source said.
NFL.com reported that Hernandez’s contract does not have language that would void the guarantees, but that shouldn’t matter.
Per Article 4, Section 9 of the CBA, “any player who . . . is unavailable to the team due to conduct by him that results in his incarceration . . . may be required to forfeit signing bonus, roster bonus, option bonus and/or reporting bonus, and no other salary, for each league year in which a forfeitable breach occurs.”
And as stated in the NFL’s constitution and bylaws, “the commissioner may . . . declare ineligible a player who is guilty of conduct detrimental to the best interests of professional football.”
If Hernandez is suspended by the team or the commissioner’s office, he will not earn any salary and his guarantees are voided until his suspension ends; for every game he is suspended in 2013, he would lose 1/17th of his $1.323 million base salary.
Hernandez would not receive any salary from the Patriots until he is removed from the reserve/suspended list.
One important point: Hernandez cannot be punished by both the NFL and the Patriots, per the CBA:
“The commissioner and a club will not both discipline a player for the same act or conduct. The commissioner’s disciplinary action will preclude or supersede disciplinary action by any club for the same act or conduct.”
Ultimately, if Hernandez is charged with a crime and the Patriots cut him, the team likely would be able to recoup or avoid paying all but $2.5 million of the $12.5 million signing bonus (he gets to keep the $2.5 million portion from 2012). Hernandez also may have to forfeit $50,000 in signing bonus money he received up front from the rookie contract he signed in 2010.
If Hernandez is released, the Patriots would get salary-cap relief for each year that he does not play — potentially from 2013-16. He has a salary-cap number of $4.073 million this year, and $4.2 million next year. But the formula for refunding the cap would be complex, and as another league source said, “I don’t think anything like this has ever happened before.”
However, it may be prudent to let the legal process play itself out. It might not look good for the Patriots to hold onto a player embroiled in a murder investigation, but the Ravens held onto Ray Lewis during his ordeal 12 years ago, and he was able to return to the field and rehabilitate his image.
If the Patriots cut Hernandez before the commissioner suspends him, they would be saddled with additional cap charges — upward of $10 million, the rest of the guaranteed money still on the books — which doesn’t make sense for the team.
Since the Patriots can avoid payments to Hernandez whether he is suspended or has his contract terminated, they might as well let the commissioner’s office suspend Hernandez and let the legal process play out before making any final decisions.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.