A contract worth $40 million, a newborn child and a fiancée, on top of being the star receiver for one of the NFL’s best teams and historically successful franchises apparently didn’t matter to Aaron Hernandez. The general question seems to be, how could anyone in their right mind do something so sinister after becoming “set” for the rest of their life?
The headline for the Hernandez case, however, shouldn’t be about the tragedy he was involved in, as horrific as it was; it should focus on the fact that despite stardom, athletes’ fame and fortune actually enhance their past demons. They become lost in an inner image struggle and revert back to their comfort zone and their old life to give them a deeper sense of power.
This is a problem that can be fixed. Sports leagues and their owners around the world can do a couple of things to help prevent a situation like this in the future, believe it or not. But first, it’s important to understand the underlying reason for Hernandez’s behavior at the most basic level.
Generally speaking, people act like the people who surround them; it gives insight into your personality, your interest and your ambition, or your lack thereof. If you hang out with people who aren’t very ambitious, it’s fair to say you aren’t or won’t be in the future, and if you’re Hernandez and you hang out with a crowd that got you in trouble in years past, it should be no surprise that you’re facing time in prison.
According to a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, “The fact is, nobody in Gainesville is totally shocked that Hernandez seems to be a person of interest in a homicide probe.” But why is everyone else in the media so surprised? Born in the hometown of ESPN, Bristol, Conn., Hernandez was the star of the high school football team and was heavily recruited to play at the University of Florida.
Arriving in Gainesville, he immediately proceeded down a troubled path. As a freshman, he refused to pay a bill at a local tavern, which eventually ended in a scuffle and a ruptured eardrum for a local bouncer. Hernandez got a slap on the wrist for that as a 19-year-old, and then later on that year, he was even investigated in a shooting on campus along with several other players. No charges were filed and nothing came of it, but shouldn’t the Patriots have realized where there is smoke, there is fire? They did end up drafting him three rounds below his projection because of severe character issues, but why didn’t they put him on a path to fix them?
The impact of a bad decision they made takes a huge toll on society, in particular the youth, who become disillusioned. Fines won’t work, because money is nothing for these big teams. If their players get convicted of a felony or worse, they should get bumped down in their team’s draft. Fines are less than a slap on the wrist, but if you start altering a team’s potential success, things will change. Tragedies will always happen, but better oversight and rules that wouldn’t allow teams to turn their shoulder on a player who was already accused in a shooting as a freshman in college would help everybody in the long run.
Athletes carry a large weight among the youth and society in general. We look to them not just for their athletic prowess, but their personality; we feel a need to identify with them and know them. A lot of times, we can identify with their story and draw parallels. Sports are an escape from work and the pressures of life, and we invest in athletes to make our day better.
My solution: more oversight into these athletes’ personal lives in the offseason and more punishments for teams targeted directly at their ability to be successful. Thorough background checks and mandatory behavior-oriented counseling for any player with a felony, misdemeanor or major crime on their record should be required. The NFL and other professional sports leagues need to start forcing players to get involved in their communities and do charity work. Yes, they can practice 12 hours a day in the offseason, but once a week for an hour, maybe they have to give a talk at a school, go to a homeless shelter or become involved with a charity. Many athletes already do this, but from now on, a contract shouldn’t just be between the player and team—the community should benefit too.
There should be a social contract with specific obligations and goals for community service laid out. We need these athletes to know they are going to be present in their community, because it will help them see the impact they have and the potential for being the role models they are. I am not saying it will be a permanent fix and that nothing like this will ever happen again, but it will help reinforce their positive image among the community and themselves, and it would help them cope with potential demons and yes men they might still have.