There’s a nagging question still lingering over the Aaron Hernandez murder case as the Patriots distance themselves from their former star tight end: Just how much was the team supposed to know about, and interfere with, Hernandez’s off-field activities?
They knew he wasn’t exactly a Boy Scout when they drafted Hernandez in the fourth round in 2010, as his affinity for marijuana and association with unsavory people were well-known by NFL front offices. Former Colts executive Bill Polian said last week that Hernandez, widely regarded as a first- or second-round talent, was not on his team’s draft board.
The Patriots then had Hernandez under their employ for three years, and even gave him a contract extension last August that for practical purposes was worth three years and $16 million, fully guaranteed.
Shouldn’t the Patriots have known what Hernandez was up to off the field — or at least known enough not to entrust him with a big contract and a major role on the team?
The answer, as usual, is complicated.
In hindsight, the pieces all add up; the alleged gun-related incidents that involved him in college and in South Florida; the loyalty to his friends from blue-collar Bristol, Conn., following the sudden death of his father when Hernandez was 16; reports of another double homicide and domestic incidents with his girlfriend that are now emerging; the lack of regard for the University of Florida’s drug-testing policies.
But look at Hernandez’s rap sheet before this murder charge. It’s clean.
The worst thing he did in college (officially) was fail a handful of drug tests for marijuana — which doesn’t tell the NFL he is a bad person, just that he’s undisciplined and is likely a four-game drug suspension waiting to happen.
And for three years in New England, Hernandez did everything Bill Belichick asked of him football-wise, according to a team source. He showed up to meetings and practices on time, practiced hard, stayed in shape, was very coachable, and starred on the field, scoring 18 touchdowns in three seasons. Just as importantly, he didn’t fail one NFL drug test in three seasons.
But when it came to Hernandez’s off-field activities, he would tune out and occasionally become angry when a coach or employee suggested he stop hanging out with some of his old friends from Connecticut.
It corroborates what the Wall Street Journal reported last week, that a personality test given to Hernandez before the 2010 draft gave him a perfect 10 for “Focus,” 9s in “Self-Efficacy” and “Receptivity to Coaching,” and a 7 for “Dedication.” He also scored a 1 for “Social Maturity.”
The Patriots knew he was hanging out with unsavory people, but how much can a team really dictate what a player does off the field?
The Patriots have control over their players during the season — from late July to the Super Bowl — and then from mid-April to mid-June during offseason workouts. They declined to say how many security and/or operations personnel they employ, but a former operations coordinator for multiple NFL teams said teams typically bring to road games three operations employees and 5-7 security officials, who generally are former police officers and detectives.
But from February to April, and mid-June to late-July, the players scatter across the country. Teams conduct thorough background checks on draft prospects, but monitoring their daily whereabouts once they’re in the league is impractical.
“It’s tough. You can’t baby-sit 61 players 24/7. You have to let them live their lives,” the operations executive said. “You have your guys you know are more likely to get into trouble, but sometimes even the good ones surprise you. A guy can be good 99 percent of the time, but the one mistake he makes can make the news.”
Hernandez moved to California in February to work out with Tom Brady and rehab his shoulder with a specialist. The Patriots are supposed to monitor his every move out there and know with whom he is hanging out?
“Teams don’t follow their players around or anything like that. Teams focus on giving guys the information and tools to protect themselves,” the operations executive said. “The first thing we told guys was, ‘Don’t drink and drive. And don’t be in suspicious places late at night.’ But the guys are going to do what they want. Some listen. Some don’t.”
Teams must straddle a fine line when advising their players. A good way to lose the locker room is to have coaches and football employees be a little too involved in players’ lives.
“In my experience, teams want to protect their investment in players but won’t cross the line into invasion of privacy to do so,” the operations executive said.
“Because I managed pretty much everything on the road, when we were on away trips everything kind of flowed through the operations staff. Players had my cellphone [number] and if they needed a cab, a ride, a hotel room or anything, I would facilitate it. Some agents have guys who do the same thing.
“We had a good knowledge of the areas we were in and strong relationships with hotels and their security, just to keep any low-level problems in-house — maybe a dustup between a couple of players in a meeting room or someone breaking curfew.
“I interacted a lot with the players and knew what a lot of them did on weekends or on certain nights. But I was never asked by the organization to divulge that info.”
The Patriots’ top brass probably knows it should have done more diligence on Hernandez, or built more protection into his big contract extension.
Then again, the end of Brady’s career is on the horizon, the Patriots want another Super Bowl title (or two), and Hernandez was a heck of a player. And there are plenty of NFL players who smoke marijuana and hang out with shady friends who don’t commit murder.
Ultimately, Hernandez is a 23-year-old man who made his own choices, no matter how much guidance the Patriots did or didn’t give him.
Solid evidence, not slam dunk
Not to turn this week’s column into an episode of “Law & Order,” but a few thoughts on the Hernandez murder investigation, with his next court appearance set for July 24 for a probable cause hearing:
■ The “circumstantial evidence” linking Hernandez to the murder is “very, very strong,” as judge Renee Dupuis called it, but this is hardly a slam dunk for the prosecution. Two key items appear to be weak right now: the motive and the smoking gun, literally.
The prosecution’s current explanation for a motive — that Hernandez “orchestrated” the murder after finding out that Odin Lloyd had associated with a few enemies of Hernandez’s at a club the prior Friday night — seems flimsy.
And they don’t have the murder weapon, although Lloyd was killed with .45-caliber bullets and Hernandez owns a .45-caliber handgun.
■ The prosecution may not be able to prove that Hernandez squeezed the trigger, but the wording at the arraignment that Hernandez “orchestrated the execution” is interesting. Evidence certainly points to Hernandez at the very least being at the murder scene and knowing what happened.
The other two defendants, Carlos Ortiz and Ernest Wallace, are from Connecticut and Florida. The murder happened on Hernandez’s turf, at an industrial park a mile away from his home. Given A) the surveillance of Hernandez and Lloyd from Boston to Attleboro, B) the presence of guns at Hernandez’s house similar to the ones that killed Lloyd, and C) Lloyd’s text messages to his sister, Hernandez is going to have a tough time coming up with a convincing alibi that he was in no way involved.
■ The case appears to be heading into a two-on-one situation — Hernandez and Wallace vs. Ortiz, a 27-year-old Connecticut man who pleaded not guilty to a gun charge in the Lloyd murder.
Ortiz, who is currently on probation from a 2013 hit-and-run incident, has been cooperating with the investigation since last week and told authorities many details, including the existence of Hernandez’s secret apartment, according to court documents.
Wallace, meanwhile, is returning to Massachusetts to face a charge of accessory after the fact to murder. And the Bristol County District Attorney was informed last week that Wallace, 41, is now being represented by high-profile attorney David Meier, leading Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk and others to surmise that Hernandez is paying for Wallace’s representation.
Even if the authorities get Ortiz to sing, expect Hernandez’s and Wallace’s lawyers to try to obliterate Ortiz’s credibility.
He has a lengthy rap sheet going back to 2004, including convictions for larceny and criminal mischief. Ortiz also was convicted of breach of peace after an incident with the mother of his child in 2011, in which he tore off her shirt and dragged her across a rug.
■ Even if Hernandez escapes the murder charge, the five gun charges could ultimately send him to jail, a la Plaxico Burress.
According to Massachusetts General Laws, Hernandez is facing a maximum of 10 years for each of two counts of carrying a large capacity firearm; a maximum of five years for one count of carrying a firearm without a license; and a maximum of two years each for charges of possession of a firearm and ammunition without a Firearm Identification Card.
■ Hernandez sets a new bar for professional athletes getting in trouble — NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has dealt with dog torturers, womanizers, and a drug kingpin, but never a murderer.
Given that Goodell has suspended players who haven’t even been charged with a crime (six games for Ben Roethlisberger), it’s hard to see Goodell ever letting Hernandez back in the league, even if he escapes the most serious charges.
Even if Hernandez pleaded guilty to some of the lesser charges and agreed to, say, five years in jail, he would only be 28 years old when he gets out. Hernandez has been temporarily banned by the NFL, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see Robert Kraft eventually lobby Goodell to permanently ban Hernandez, just so another team couldn’t swipe him up as a redemption story.
OUT OF PLACE
The Jaguars, whose average attendance of 64,984 ranked 20th in the NFL last season, told the Sports Business Journal last week they might air the NFL’s widely popular Red Zone Channel on the giant video boards at EverBank Stadium during home games this fall. They are also turning one of the concourse platforms into an air-conditioned fantasy football lounge.
The thinking, of course, is that fans will return to the stadium once they realize they can still watch Red Zone Channel and keep up with their fantasy teams while also watching the Jaguars.
That thinking is misguided. Fans don’t go to stadiums to watch TV. Watching Red Zone at a game, as SiriusXM analyst Ross Tucker said on Twitter, “feels like me trying to watch game while talking w/wife. Hard to do both effectively.”
Owners need to understand that attending a game in many cities is now a hassle more than anything else.
The traffic stinks, the tickets, parking, and food are expensive, the bathrooms are dirty, the fans are drunk and obnoxious, and, yes, it’s hard to send text messages and keep track of your fantasy team.
Putting Red Zone Channel on the stadium Jumbotron or building a fantasy football lounge isn’t going to convince most fans to leave their homes or local bars and spend $200, conservatively, on a day at the game.
Thirteen NFL teams operated at less than 95 percent attendance capacity in 2013 (with Miami last at 76.3 percent), and the answer seems simple — lower the prices. And not just on tickets. There’s no immutable law that parking has to cost $25 and a basket of rubbery chicken tenders $12.
The fans will show up if they feel like they are getting a deal. Instead, it feels like they’re getting shaken down at the gates.
Chung’s camp music to ears
Good to see former Patriots safety Patrick Chung still giving back to the Boston community after signing with the Eagles this offseason.
Chung, who had seven interceptions in four seasons with the Patriots, is hosting via his foundation a music camp from July 8-26 at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center. The camp combines music education with athletic activities to give kids ages 13-18 a fun, productive way to spend their summer.
Guest instructors will teach kids how to read and compose music and expose them to various instruments.
“There are a lot of kids that love music, they just don’t have the people around them to excite that interest,” said Chung, whose mother was a Jamaican reggae star in the 1980s. “We just want to get kids out of the house, stop playing video games, and doing something constructive with their lives.”
For more information, check out chungchanginglives.org.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.