Arresting the slide
Simon Veness reports on the fallout from Aaron Hernandez's arrest and wider problems in US sport.
Last Updated: 27/06/13 11:56am
You know that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach when you've just put the phone down on Bad News and your brain refuses to acknowledge the evidence of your ears; when there is a sense of total disbelief; and betrayal.
You know that feeling?
The NFL as an entity is feeling it right now, through all 32 teams and every media outlet and just about every fan. And it goes way beyond simple sporting boundaries.
They're feeling it in the NBA and MLB and even the NHL and MLS. On CNN and NBC and every other news organisation you can name. It is a sucker punch to the gut of the country, an intense, wide-ranging hurt that has a whole nation looking at its sportsmen and wondering, "What on earth are you doing?"
And it's not just the ground-shaking arrest of former New England star tight end Aaron Hernandez, although that would easily have been enough on its own to initiate a long bout of cultural navel-gazing.
While we were still trying to digest Wednesday's breakfast news that Hernandez had been led away in handcuffs, the central figure in a brutal murder last week that had the police (and much of the media) seemingly camped on his doorstep 24/7, there was an equally unsavoury incident to ponder from New Jersey via Cleveland.
Browns rookie Ausar Walcott, an undrafted free agent linebacker, had been charged with attempted murder for a vicious punch on a 24-year-old man outside a "gentleman's club" that had left the victim in intensive care, fighting for his life. From a punch.
How hard do you need to hit someone to put them in an ICU? What could possibly motivate another human being to such an inhuman act after they've been ogling female flesh all evening?
More simply, what kind of sportsmen are we producing?
Sadly, the "gentleman's club" angle also plays a part in the Hernandez story, with "the ex-NFL player" (and how quick the TV news editors were to produce that caption) involved in an equally seedy escapade at a Miami strip joint in February when a gun was discharged - allegedly illegally in Hernandez's possession - and cost one of his "friends" an eye.
Somehow that little escapade has been swept under the south Florida carpet as the victim in question, Hernandez's pal Alexander Bradley, has withdrawn the civil suit he filed on June 13, and the whole issue is now a mere footnote when it might have been a headline item in its own right.
It is a footnote, of course, because of the events in the early hours of June 18 when a player from the semi-pro Boston Bandits football team - the worst possible way for that obscure outfit to appear on the national news - ended up on a North Attleborough Police murder report.
The huge pall of incriminating smoke that almost immediately erupted over Hernandez's nearby house finally gave rise to the fire of Wednesday's arrest, and the legal ramifications will now be long, convoluted - and picked over with enormous relish by the news media, who have scented the biggest court case since OJ Simpson led police on a merry slow-motion dance in a white SUV in June 1994.
But the various legal niceties are not where many people's thoughts are going right now. It is not a question of assigning guilt or innocence, or even of wondering how it could happen that a young sports star with a $40million contract ends up on the morning news in handcuffs.
It is the pure and utter sense of "How could they?" And, more importantly, the issue of why so many of today's feted athletes feel they can just do anything they want?
Because it is not just Hernandez and Walcott. It is Pacman Jones and Tank Johnson. It is Chad Johnson and Michael Vick. It is Josh Brent and Donte Stallworth. Go back to 1999 and it was Rae Carruth being convicted of murder. And, in basketball, it is the crimes perpetrated by the likes of Gilbert Arenas and Jayson Williams.
And there are plenty of others, a litany of arrests, misdemeanours and convictions for the kind of crimes that would be appalling enough if they were perpetrated by the underpaid service workers of the country's great sports arenas.
But the fact is they are all laid at the door of the players themselves, these amazingly overpaid, over-privileged and pampered sportsmen who have absolutely NO reason ever to raise a finger in anger, let alone put someone on the critical list with a punch.
These are the questions America is now asking in the wake of an event that still has the NFL rocking, no matter how quick New England were to drop Hernandez like the hottest of rotten potatoes.
Of course, the chorus of "we knew he was no good all along" has already started in the case of the ex-Patriot, a player with elite skills who dropped all the way to the fourth round in 2010 after his self-confessed failure of a marijuana drug test.
But the fact is the team was happy to hand him a $40m contract only last year, with its whopping $12.5m signing bonus up front. Hardly the action of a franchise with any long-term doubts over one of their most prized investments.
And there were no visible admonitions for his off-field lifestyle, which included getting his girlfriend pregnant - and then disappearing off to the nearest strip club.
Sure, the Pats were quick to trot out their reasons for releasing one of only two surviving pass-catchers from last season, insisting: "A young man was murdered last week and we extend our sympathies to the family and friends who mourn his loss.
Words cannot express the disappointment we feel knowing that one of our players was arrested as a result of this investigation. We realise law enforcement investigations into this matter are ongoing. We support their efforts and respect the process. At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do."
And the league itself followed up with: "The involvement of an NFL player in a case of this nature is deeply troubling. The Patriots have released Aaron, who will have his day in court. At the same time, we should not forget the young man who was the victim in this case and take this opportunity to extend our deepest sympathy to Odin Lloyd's family and friends."
"Deeply troubling" but a recurring theme in the NFL-dominated sports landscape; easy to criticise and lament yet much harder to police and control.
But, as the social commentators began their latest bouts of hand-wringing editorials, the key question needs to be asked: what will sport actually DO to prevent this spiral of self-inflicted destruction?
Will they, finally, take the bull by the horns and demand greater accountability of the players who so eagerly grab the huge piles of cash thrown their way? Will they, as a line-in-the-sand demarcation, insist: "Enough."
And will they take the hard road of adopting a zero tolerance policy to the miscreants and offenders, who seem to think their privileged lifestyle carries no responsibility - and no restrictions? Will they do all this no matter what it costs the team?
Because, only then, will we see these morally abhorrent elements rooted out and cleared away.
A country is now waiting for sport to take the next step. And before the next innocent party is assaulted, mown down or murdered.