|ESPN.com: NFL||[Print without images]|
AURORA, Ohio -- The players attending this year's NFL rookie symposium shouldn't merely be listening to the countless speakers lecturing them about life in professional football this week. They should also be checking out the round-the-clock coverage surrounding former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. It's tragic enough that he was just arraigned on murder charges and that another man is dead. It would be even worse if those first-year players entrenched in suburban Ohio didn't learn a few things from this steadily evolving controversy.
The reality is that we have no idea whether Hernandez is innocent or guilty of the murder of Odin Lloyd. We do know he is in serious trouble, the kind that any player in the NFL could stumble into if he made enough bad choices. The Patriots obviously thought Hernandez's situation was ugly enough that it was worth releasing him within hours of his arrest Wednesday morning. It's also apparent that regardless of how this all plays out, Hernandez's reputation is tainted for the remainder of his life.
What the rookies need to understand is that this story is about more than a lost life or a 23-year-old star athlete potentially looking at life in prison. It's about choices. It's about the decisions they make every day, the people they bring into their lives, the ease with which a lifetime dream can turn into a never-ending nightmare. Hernandez heard similar warnings at his own rookie symposium in 2010. He also probably thought the same thing many of this year's first-year players believe: I won't be that guy.
The truth is that anybody can be that guy. Former Chicago Bears defensive tackle Terry "Tank" Johnson spent part of his session Monday explaining to players how guns destroyed his good name and compromised his career.
Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones came later in the evening to offer his own lessons from his troubled career, one that has included plenty of run-ins with the law.
Even a former NBA player, Chris Herren, hit this class with his own jaw-dropping message of how easily drugs can derail an athlete's high hopes. The first thing he said at the start of his hour-long speech was that there will be more addicts and broke ballplayers among this draft class than multimillionaires.
No one had to mention Hernandez because it was too raw a case, too many pieces of evidence yet to be revealed. But he should've been on the mind of every young man in that room. Even though we don't know much about the evidence in this investigation, perceptions already have started to form in the court of public opinion. We already can see that Hernandez made plenty of mistakes before he ever walked into Attleboro District Court on Wednesday to hear a prosecutor charge him with first-degree murder and five weapons charges.
Even if you discount the circumstantial evidence suggesting Hernandez could be culpable -- including his connection to Lloyd on the night of the murder and a federal lawsuit by another man claiming Hernandez shot him outside a strip club in Florida in a separate incident -- Hernandez has made enough bad moves in the past week to make people question his judgment. A cleaning crew was brought to his home in the days that followed Lloyd's death. According to ABC News sources, the security system in Hernandez's home was destroyed and his attorneys also turned over a shattered cellphone to police when officers asked for it. Hernandez also was far too visible as this story heated up, often seen strutting around as if there was no way the police had anything on him.
Those images and stories should mean as much to this year's rookies as the advice they get in their lecture halls and breakout sessions. They are watching a player's career implode in real time, right before their eyes. This isn't some past-his-prime star who's counseling them to choose a better path. If they want to see how ugly things can turn or how brutal the NFL can be, all they had to do was catch "SportsCenter" on Wednesday morning. The Patriots released Hernandez less than two hours after police walked him out of his suburban Boston mansion, in handcuffs, for the entire world to see.
We have to assume the Patriots cut ties that quickly because they believed this wasn't going to get any better for Hernandez. This was the same team that had rewarded him with a five-year, $40 million contract extension last summer, one that came with owner Bob Kraft raving about how "first-class" Hernandez was as a person. It was a splendid reward for a player who had overcome the stigma of dropping to the fourth round in the 2010 draft because of character issues related to his time at Florida. It was the ultimate proof of what could happen when an immature player is given a chance to grow.
These days nobody is talking about the way Hernandez proved his skeptics wrong during the first three years of his career. Now the conversation is focused on the red flags that were dismissed earlier in his life. The failed drug tests in college. The moments when he revealed a quick temper. The sketchy friends who were a big enough concern for some teams that they dropped him from their draft boards when he was entering the league.
Those first-year players in Ohio should pay attention to that dynamic as well. They should realize how scary it can be to lose control of your image, to have the same executives who salivated over you at one point quickly decide that it's better to keep you away from the franchise. It's likely that most of this year's rookies could never imagine a situation in which they might be accused of killing somebody. We've already seen one player hit with that charge this week while another less-heralded athlete, former Cleveland Browns rookie linebacker Ausar Wolcott, was arrested Tuesday and charged with attempted murder for allegedly punching a man outside a New Jersey nightclub (the Browns subsequently released Wolcott after he was charged).
Let's also not forget the major tragedy of last season: the murder-suicide orchestrated by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher. It's fair to say this isn't the NFL commissioner Roger Goodell envisioned when he began cracking down on personal conduct shortly after taking office in 2006. The perception then was that enough heat from the league could curb the behavior of the men playing the game. To a certain extent, that strategy has proved to be true.
But there will always be exceptions to the rule, the dismissive player who believes that he's too smart or gifted to destroy his career. That's the same guy who wrongly believes that Aaron Hernandez didn't once look at his own life and think everything was playing out perfectly. What those first-year players have to understand is that everybody sits where they are now and fantasizes about how good life can be. The ones who actually end up living out those dreams realize that trouble doesn't discriminate against anybody.