In a Boston sports week that can only be described as surreal – the Bruins squandering the Stanley Cup, Doc Rivers skipping town, Danny Ainge officially kabooming the Celtics – Aaron Hernandez somehow managed to keep the spotlight fixed squarely on himself. A formidable accomplishment indeed.
While it will likely be some time before Hernandez is officially classified a murderer, the court of public opinion – as it tends to do – has already issued its verdict. Sometimes that’s not a good thing, but in the case of Hernandez – which, let’s face it, appears to be so cut and dry the only thing it’s missing is a literal smoking gun – it’s justified. In line with the public, or just a beat ahead, the Patriots cast their own ruling, releasing Hernandez shortly after he was taken into custody on Wednesday. There were those who immediately pounced on the opportunity to castigate the Patriots for employing a player with documented character issues and an emerging murky past as it pertained to firearms.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, that was remarkably just the beginning of a series of revelations over the next 48 hours, the last of which potentially tying Hernandez to an unsolved double homicide in downtown Boston last summer.
There is no disputing Bob Kraft and Bill Belichick made a gross miscalculation in giving Hernandez a $37.5 million contract extension last year. And to a lesser degree, even drafting him to begin with. But like it or not, this is how the Patriots do business. The NFL may not be overflowing with suspected murderers, but it’s also not a league dominated by choir boys. Checkered pasts are a part of the game, and – justifiably or not – the Patriots have always conducted themselves with a sense of arrogance when it’s come to players who fit that description.
They believe in their system, one that stresses team over individual. Slates can be wiped clean, but leashes are short. Whenever Belichick has taken on a player of questionable character, he has laid out in no uncertain terms that there’s a certain code of conduct that must be adhered to in Foxborough. Any deviation will and has resulted in the swiftest of rear-end kicks out the door.
The bottom line is Belichick has always had the utmost confidence in his ability to take a player whose moral compass was slightly off-kilter, and recalibrate it through the structure and discipline of his program, the work ethic and leadership of Tom Brady and the unified end of success on the football field. More often than not, he’s succeeded. If you want to deride his failures, have at it with guys like Adalius Thomas or Albert Haynesworth, whose character issues proved to be beyond Belichick’s capacity to rectify.
Aaron Hernandez, on the other hand, is quite simply another case altogether.
Again, this is not to excuse the monumental disaster the Hernandez era in New England turned out to be. The Patriots are responsible for their actions. Did they fail their fans, their brand and themselves through their affiliation with Hernandez? Absolutely. Like they’ve done in the past, they invested in a talented but morally-questionable individual whom they believed they could turn onto the right path with the right handling. It is right there, however, that the parallels to past experiments begin and end.
Because if everything is as it seems, the Patriots didn’t get a troubled young man in need of direction, but rather a sociopathic, morally empty, cold-blooded killer. And the only person who should have to shoulder that burden is Aaron Hernandez.