Sports bring people together and it also reveals the best and the worst in people. Wednesday, we witnessed an unprecedented set of events from an active star-player as tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested and charged with the first-degree murder of 27 year-old Odin Lloyd, one count of carrying a firearm without a license, two counts of possession a large-capacity firearm and two counts of possessing a firearm without an FID card.
Amidst the turmoil of Hernandez’ arrest and immediate release from the New England Patriots organization, which was expressed as the most heartwarming statement that this organization has ever done, in my opinion; a NFL rookie was also arrested. Rookie defensive end/linebacker Ausar Walcott was charged with first-degree attempted murder, second-degree aggravated assault and third-degree endangering an injured victim was confirmed with Passaic County Sherriff’s Office in Paterson, N.J.
Walcott was an undrafted player and was signed with the Cleveland Browns on May 13. Without hesitation, Browns’ front office released him. Trouble for Walcott began on Sunday when he punched Derrick Jones in the head outside the Palace Gentlemen’s Club around 3 a.m. and Jones is in critical condition. In 2011 while he was at Virginia, Walcott was arrested due to charges of assault and battery from a fight, making this his second arrest. So far the Browns were not being so lucky in their rookie players’ selection as seventh-round Armonty Bryant was charged with drunken driving in Oklahoma just a few days after being drafted in April. Interesting enough, Bryant was also arrested on a felony drug charge while in college.
There is nothing new about NFL players being in trouble with the law. But the Aaron Hernandez case has topped to be a big wake-up call to the NFL league that adjustments must be made if protecting the league’s image is to be maintained. There is more at stake than to protect the NFL brand as players become an extension of representation of the NFL and its club. There is an expectation from the public that such players are to be viewed as a role model – by their athleticism and service to the community, as well, there is an intangible value vested; both emotional (the bond fans create with players) and financial (spending their funds with player’s merchandise).
What is at stake is the example being sent to our society and future generations whether they will embrace the love for the game of football or not. While no team or person could ever predict Hernandez would be charged for the cold-blooded murder of another human being, whether we like or not, in today’s NFL, a pattern of destructive behavior is being revealed by many players in this league. Hernandez case is absolutely unreal to its core and the bucket should stop here.
While nobody has a crystal ball to know other’s intention, how could the league take actions to diminish players’ involvement in criminal activities?
In 2007, the NFL launched a new conduct policy to assist in controlling off-field behavior by its players and protect the league’s public image. Commissioner Roger Goodell implemented a tougher, new personal-conduct policy that applies to the player’s personal lives and image in the public spotlight. The Personal Conduct Policy is incorporated in the League Policies for Players and it ranges from Discipline for Game-Related Misconduct, to Player Uniform Policies, to Guns and Weapons Policy and other policies. Several players tasted the league’s punishment for inflicting damage to the NFL image through criminal behavior. One example is when Michael Vick pleaded guilty in his participation in illegal dog fighting and euthanization and was suspended indefinitely without pay, but was allowed for reinstatement into the league. While some discipline ranges from indefinite suspension, others can result in fine, a few games suspension, or banned from the league.
Taking into consideration the set of events that has been occurring with NFL player and their criminal behavior, is the Personal Conduct Policy really helping control off-field behavior?
Based on the facts, I have to disagree with its efficiency and effectiveness – it’s a mere slap on the wrist. Aaron Hernandez arrest marks the 29th NFL player arrest since the Super Bowl in February 2013 according to U-T San Diego. If the league is truly concerned in protecting its image in the public spotlight, the Personal Conduct Policy should adhere severe consequences; for example, being banned from the league in extreme cases, suspension for more than just four or six games, greater monetary loss such as signing bonuses, guaranteed salaries; and even void the contract for failure to perform, and limit the number of criminal infractions allowed to still be in the league. Take for example, Chris Henry, arrested five times in three states between December 2005 and April 2008. In April 2008 the Cincinnati Bengals released Henry to only have him re-signed in August 2008. Henry died in December 2009 from injuries occurred from an accident from a domestic dispute between him and his fiancée.
To be in the NFL is considered to be a privilege – not a right. But in light of the events occurred, the purpose of the message in the Personal Conduct Policy is becoming weak by the day simply because repercussion is insignificant and it doesn’t help create a culture in which the individual player would perhaps think twice before entering into criminal activities. As this league is heavily led on a business-mindset, I would think strict measures would have been taken by now as I’m sure the league and the clubs lose a reasonable amount of money on criminally charged player’s merchandise.
It will be interesting to see if the league will take any action in light of Aaron Hernandez situation and the message that is portraying. I believe Hernandez has created a tipping point situation. As easy as it seems to be to make a few adjustments in the Personal Conduct Policy, it could turn into a battle with the NFLPA and the tying of the conduct policy into the Collective-Bargaining Agreement as in the latest negotiation Commissioner Goodell made clear of his refusal to allow outside entity to review the discipline imposed by him under the personal conduct policy as he said back in 2011, “The answer to that is no, I’m not going to be open to that. I’m not going to hand off the brand and the reputation of the NFL to somebody who is not associated with the NFL. I promise you that. That is one of the number one jobs as a commissioner in my opinion.”
However, as NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in his statement, “The involvement of an NFL player in a case of this nature is deeply troubling.”
I could not agree more.
Follow Celia Westbrook on Twitter @celiawestbrook