Earlier this week authorities in Massachusetts arrested New England Patriots star tight end Aaron Hernandez and charged him with the murder of 27-year-old Odin Lloyd.
Last week a jogger found Odin’s bullet-riddled body in a field a half-mile from Hernandez’s house. He’d been shot five times, including once in the back and twice in the chest. Prosecutors say that a few nights before the killing Hernandez and Odin had gotten into a dispute after attending a Boston nightclub together. Hernandez also faces five gun-related charges, including illegal possession of a large-capacity firearm. He is being held without bail.
In the summer of 2012, the Patriots signed Hernandez to a five-year, $40 million contract that included a $16 million signing bonus. It’s easy to question why a guy with so much would risk throwing it all away over an alleged dispute that ended in a violent crime. But the better question is why do bad actors continue to get rewarded with college scholarships and big-money contracts?
Before I became a journalist, I conducted the first national studies on athletes and crime. I looked at the factors that lead some athletes to break the law. Ordinarily, individuals who possess college degrees, live in gated communities, and earn seven-figure salaries aren’t top candidates to carry illegal weapons and commit street crimes. But professional sports present a unique set of factors that can enable and facilitate bad actors.
In my first year of law school I wrote "Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL." For the book I performed criminal background checks on 509 NFL players from the 1996-97 season and found that 109 of them — 21 percent — had been arrested or indicted for a serious crime. Suffice it to say that Aaron Hernandez is not the first NFL player to face serious felony charges, and like hundreds of other criminally charged pro athletes I’ve researched, Hernandez has a past.
According to published reports, he ran with a rough crowd, smoked pot and had anger issues while attending high school in Bristol, Conn. But he was also one of the most talented high school football players in the country, which landed him a scholarship to the University of Florida. This is where coaches come into the picture. They are the gatekeepers for universities and colleges. Alone, they decide whether a player with past trouble deserves a second chance.
Shortly after Florida’s Urban Meyer gave him a scholarship, Hernandez was arrested in his freshman year after getting into a fight with a bouncer at an off-campus bar. Hernandez was 17 at the time. His juvenile status enabled him to secure a deferred prosecution.
Later that same season, Gainesville police questioned Hernandez after two men were injured in a shooting that took place following a game. He was not charged. At the start of his sophomore season, he was suspended for the opening game after testing positive for marijuana. According to The Boston Globe, Hernandez failed as many as six drug tests while in college.
In 2010 I co-wrote a cover story in Sports Illustrated called: “Criminal Records in College Football.” We performed criminal background checks on 2,837 college football players from 2010 and found that 204 players had records resulting in 277 incidents, including 56 violent crimes.
College coaches are constantly faced with the decision on whether to take chances on players who bend the rules or break the law. The reality is that too many coaches are unwilling to cut loose highly talented players who think they live by their own rules.
In the case of Aaron Hernandez, he developed into one of the best tight ends in college football. In his junior year, he was a favorite target of Tim Tebow and helped lead Florida to a national title. Then he left for the NFL draft. He should have been a lock for the first round. But league sources say he slipped to the fourth round because of “red flags” in his file.
The Patriots took Hernandez in the fourth round. He has been a standout on the field in his first three seasons; hence the $40 million contract reward last summer. But now that $16 million in guaranteed upfront money the team paid him last year looks like a pretty bad investment. A man from Boston is dead.
Meantime, earlier this month, a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Florida alleged that Hernandez shot a convicted drug dealer in the face after the two men had been partying at a strip club in Miami back in February. Hernandez’s connection to the ex-con is unclear, but they grew up about 20 miles from each other in Connecticut.
Sooner or later, teams will stop throwing away money on trouble. Illegal weapons, pot and perpetual trips to strip clubs are like neon warning signs that say danger ahead.
Jeff Benedict is a special features writer for Sports Illustrated. His forthcoming book with Armen Keteyian — The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football — will be published in the fall.