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Columnist critique of Patriot Way falls short

How dare Ashley Fox hold the New England Patriots culpable for Aaron Hernandez’s alleged transgressions? How can she accuse owner Robert Kraft and Coach Bill Belichick of enabling the tight end’s murderous runs? Why doesn’t ESPN release her?

That has been the tenor of the ombudsman’s recent mail, not to mention the more than 4,000 overwhelmingly negative comments trailing behind Fox’s Monday column on ESPN.com about Hernandez and the Patriots.

For starters, let me say that I’m glad Fox wrote a strong opinion in what has seemed like careful coverage of the Hernandez case. While I thought the ESPN crime reporting, often in conjunction with ABC News, has been good, I wondered if the sidebars were a little too concerned with how the Patriots’ release of Hernandez might affect the team and how quickly his jerseys were pulled off the shelves and became collectibles.

I couldn’t find much criticism of a Patriot Way that included dumping a productive star before the justice system declared him guilty. Should any comparison be made to the case of Ray Lewis, implicated in a 2000 murder? That case is still a mystery. But the Ravens stood by their man and they all went on to win Super Bowl rings. Lewis is now an ESPN analyst.

When Fox weighed in on the Hernandez case, I wished she had been a little weightier. Casting blame is a columnist’s game, but other than taking a chance on a terrific player with “character issues” who had fallen to the fourth round of the 2010 draft, and then re-signing him for millions a few years later, what exactly had Kraft and Belichick done wrong?

How about this: If you hire a guy to risk serious physical injuries by performing violent acts for you, don’t you have some responsibility for checking on his mental state?

Jim Stewart, a former NFL player and now a licensed therapist who works with combat vets suffering from PTSD, has been lobbying the NFL and various teams to “embed” therapists whom players can talk to privately before their lives take terrible turns. He thinks, for example, such an embed might have prevented Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs from murdering his girlfriend in front of their baby and then killing himself in front of his coaches. That’s about as obvious a cry for franchise help as one can find. Could such a person have helped Hernandez?

A case could be made that Kraft and Belichick -- that any NFL owner and coach -- are somehow complicit in a player’s destructive act if a series of behavioral signs were ignored. There were certainly signs in the Hernandez file.

Ashley Fox didn’t make the case, thus opening herself to a zone-flooding tide of unpleasant mail. But give her some credit for thinking about this awful story in a fresh and serious way.