A contract worth $40 million, a newborn child, a fiancee, on top of being a star tight end for one of the NFL’s best teams apparently didn’t matter to Aaron Hernandez. “How could anyone in their right mind do something so sinister after becoming ‘set’ for the rest of his life?” seems to be the general consensus.
The headline for the Hernandez case however shouldn’t be about the tragedy he was involved in, as horrific as it was. It should focus on the fact that athletes’ fame and fortune, far from solving their problems, actually enhances their past demons. They become lost in an inner image struggle, and revert to their comfort zone and their old life, to give them a deeper sense of power.
This is a problem that can be fixed, if sports leagues and their owners around the world do a couple of things to help prevent a situation like this in the future, believe it or not. But first it’s important to understand the underlying reason for Hernandez’s behavior, at the most basic level.
Generally speaking, people act like the people who surround them; it gives insight to your personality, your interests and your ambition, or your lack thereof. If you hang out with people who aren’t very ambitious it’s fair to say you aren’t or won’t be in the future. And if you’re Aaron Hernandez and you hang out with a crowd that got you in trouble in years past, it should be no surprise you’re facing time in prison. According to Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi, “The fact is, nobody in Gainesville is totally shocked that Hernandez seems to be a person of interest in a homicide probe.”
But why is everyone else in the media so surprised? Born in Bristol, Conn., the hometown of ESPN, Mr. Hernandez was the star of the high school football team and was heavily recruited to play in college. Arriving in Gainesville at the University of Florida, he immediately proceeded down a troubled path. As a freshman, he refused to pay a bill at a local tavern, an incident that eventually ended in a scuffle and a ruptured eardrum for a local bouncer. Mr. Hernandez got a slap on the wrist for that as a 19-year-old, and then later on that year he was investigated in a shooting on campus with several other players.
Even though no charges were filed in the shooting, the New England Patriots should have realized where there is smoke, there is fire. They did end up drafting him three rounds below where he was projected to go based on his football prowess, because of those severe character issues, but why didn’t they put him on a path to fix them?
The impact of a bad decision they make takes a huge toll on society, in particular the youth becoming disillusioned. Fines won’t work, because money is nothing for these teams. If their players get convicted of a felony or worse, they should get bumped down in the draft order. Fines are less than a slap on the wrist, but if you start altering a team’s potential success things will change.
Athletes carry a large weight among the youth and society in general. We look to them not just for their athletic prowess but their personality. We feel a need to identify with and know them, and often we can identify with their story and draw parallels. Sports are an escape from work and the pressures of life, and we invest in athletes to make our day better.
My solution is more oversight into these athletes’ personal lives in the offseason, and more punishments for teams targeted directly at their ability to be successful. Thorough background checks and mandatory behavior-oriented counseling for any player with a felony, misdemeanor or major crime on his record should be required.
The NFL and other professional sports leagues need to start forcing players to get involved in their communities and do charity work. Yes, they can practice 12 hours a day in the offseason, but once a week for an hour maybe they have to give a talk at a school, or go to a homeless shelter, or become involved a charity. Many athletes already do this, but from now on a contract shouldn’t just be between the player and team; the community should benefit too. There should be a social contract with specific obligations and goals for community service laid out.
We need these athletes to know they are going to be present in their community, because it will help them see the effect they have and the potential for being a role model they are. I am not saying it will be a permanent fix or that nothing like the Hernandez case will ever happen again. But it will help reinforce their positive image to the community and themselves, and it would help them cope with potential demons and yes-men they might still have.
• Armstrong Williams is the author of the book “Reawakening Virtues.” Join him from 4 to 5 a.m. and 6 to 7 p.m. daily on Sirius/XM Power 128. Become a fan on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.