EVEN BEFORE the dramatic arraignment of Aaron Hernandez on a first-degree murder charge, the New England Patriots began pulling jerseys with Hernandez’s number from souvenir stands. It was a sign of the Patriots’ shrewd decision to cut ties with the troubled tight end at the first news of his arrest, and as the day went on the airwaves seemed refreshingly free of any teammates rushing to his defense. They, like most other observers of this sordid saga, seemed to understand both the seriousness of the accusations against Hernandez and the extent of his breach of faith with anyone who helped him or looked up to him.
But one could only guess at the feelings of the children who wore those Hernandez jerseys, and of the difficult conversations going on in the homes of Patriots fans around the region. Kids can throw away their shirts but can’t erase the memory of seeing the star receiver in handcuffs, with a blank expression, as a prosecutor detailed the long list of evidence against him.
Like any defendant, Hernandez deserves a presumption of innocence. But the revelations of the last two weeks — of a drug history, of possible tampering with evidence, of a lawsuit stemming from a second incident in which he is accused of shooting someone — are deeply shocking. The charges against Hernandez go far beyond what even the most jaded fan might have envisioned.
However deep their awareness of past incidents involving sports stars, fans deserve to know that good character is part of a pro athlete’s job description. Youngsters still look up to sports heroes, and older fans commit a lot of time and energy rooting for them. Most New England fans have heard, by now, how the Patriots took a chance on Hernandez despite a past drug suspension and a team scouting report that declared, “Self esteem is quite low; not well adjusted emotionally; not happy, moods unpredictable, not stable, doesn’t take much to set him off.”
To insist that teams must now blackball all troubled young prospects would be an unfortunate outcome of the Hernandez saga; often, kids from difficult backgrounds deserve a second chance in a nurturing environment. But everyone associated with professional sports — and especially the Patriots, who in recent years have taken on players whom other teams have rejected for behavioral reasons — must search for ways to reinforce the importance of good character, and to intervene early when players begin to stray.
Yes, professional athletes are adults. But they’re also facing enormous pressures at young ages — 23, in Hernandez’s case. The size of their contracts — $37 million, in Hernandez’s case — may in some instances magnify the potential for trouble. The only reasonable question — for fans, teams, agents, and anyone else caught up in the drama of big-time sports — is to wonder how to make sure that they don’t face such shame and sadness as the Hernandez drama in the future.