Commentary

The Price of Leadership

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady owed the public far more than what they delivered

Originally Published: August 5, 2013
By Howard Bryant | ESPN The Magazine

tom brady bill belichick aaron hernandez scandalSean McCabe for ESPNBrady and Belichick owe fans more than what they gave in the wake of Aaron Hernandez's arrest.

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MOST DAYS, the sports industrial complex is merely nauseating, with its overheated cliches of leadership and adversity, respect and disrespect; with its inappropriate war analogies routinely transforming both the English language and any sense of perspective into self-indulgent mush.

When Aaron Hernandez was charged with murder in June, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the public faces of the New England Patriots, initially said nothing. Belichick was on vacation. Here was the player he scouted, drafted and rewarded with a $40 million contract being connected to two shootings and three murders, and apparently the coach didn't think it was important enough to return home.

When Brady, general of the red zone, father of three, finally did speak about Hernandez nearly a month later, Bela Lugosi couldn't have made his first public comments sound more inhuman: "I've seen a lot of things over 13 years," the quarterback told Peter King of Sports Illustrated, "and what I have learned is that mental toughness and putting aside personal agendas for what's in the best interest of the team matters most … I have moved on. I'm focusing on the great teammates I have who are committed to helping us win games. The only thing I care about is winning. Nothing is going to ever get in the way of that goal."

Subsequent Brady comments, after the organization got its story straight, at least allowed that the situation was a "terrible thing," but his first, unscripted words spoke loudest. In other words, tough break, Odin Whatever-your-name-was, but Tom has game film to watch. He's moved on. Brady made a teammate's being charged with a murder while also being linked to a drive-by double murder a year earlier sound no different from overcoming Richard Seymour's being traded to the Raiders.

On July 24, with Odin Lloyd long buried, Belichick spoke for the first time, and the media, defeated and supplicant, all but tripped over themselves in lauding him for being "forthcoming," "candid" and "heartfelt."

Had it not been so disgusting, it might have been funny. All the great coach -- this molder of men -- did was finally take a few minutes out of his busy schedule, a month after Lloyd's last breath, to say he felt terrible that a 27-year-old was lowered into the ground too soon, murdered, allegedly, by one of his players. Belichick was praised for acting like a human being.

When the media were done applauding Belichick for doing the least amount possible, it was suggested that the Patriots did not owe the public a response, because it would give the impression that the organization was somehow responsible for Hernandez's alleged crimes.

Here's the truth: The Patriots do owe the public, because they and every other sports team in America take from the public, profit from the public, sell their name to the public. The Patriots sell their players not just as athletes but as people whose names fans should wear proudly on their backs, and it is the coach who takes the credit for his acumen when his find dances in the end zone or, as Hernandez did, makes a $50,000 charitable donation.

Teams bathe in the fiction that they value character, can spot it and develop it; yet here, when character actually mattered, the great coach and his legendary quarterback looked as small as a hash mark. Had Hernandez saved a toddler from drowning instead of allegedly putting a bullet into a friend, the Patriots would have claimed him. The hero machine would have churned, applauding itself for giving the poor kid from the tough background a chance, first to take credit for the sunshine. But since Brady, who has "moved on," values only victory, then maybe the public should not care about his golf tournaments, charity events and foundations, the image scrubbings that are part of the hero game.

As for the media, they were in effect making the argument that the Patriots have historically set the bar so low that no one expected any humanity from Belichick. That in itself is an obvious indictment. Here was a coach who talked community while disappearing from it. And if anyone was surprised that a murder could actually get his attention, maybe Belichick was never a leader in the first place.

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