After Aaron Hernandez, Why Sports Franchises Should Reconsider Their Approach To Athletes And Crime

In a long Rolling Stone profile of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who is facing murder charges, by Paul Solotaroff and Ron Borges, the two men suggest that the decision to draft Hernandez in the first place was the result of a changing institutional culture in the New England organization:

Time was, the Pats were the Tiffany franchise, a team of such sterling moral repute that they cut a player right after they drafted him, having learned he had a history of assaulting women. But Belichick, the winner of three Super Bowl titles and grand wizard of the greatest show on turf, had decided long before he got to New England that such niceties were beneath him. Over a decade, he’d been aggregating power unto himself, becoming the Chief Decider on personnel matters. He signed so many players bearing red flags they could have marched in Moscow’s May Day parade (Randy Moss, Donte Stallworth, et al.), and began drafting kids with hectic pasts, assuming the team’s vets would police them. Some of this was arrogance, some of it need: When you’re picking from the bottom of the deck each spring, you’re apt to shave some corners to land talent.

The incident to which they refer is the drafting of University of Nebraska defensive tackle Christian Peter in the 1996 draft. As Joan Venocchi explained in a recent column:

Peter was headed to Foxborough from the University of Nebraska with ugly baggage that included sexual assault convictions and charges. The Patriots’ brass said they didn’t know the extent of his legal problems. Besides, as then-coach Bill Parcells breezily mused, the NFL “isn’t all choirboys.” Myra Kraft wasn’t satisfied. She took her concerns to her husband. He looked into them, and the Patriots cut Peter loose. It was the first time a drafted player was waived before the start of training camp. “I don’t want thugs and hoodlums here,” Kraft reportedly told Parcells. But Myra Kraft was the first to take a stand on the issue.

In an analysis of the Rolling Stone piece at The New Republic, Marc Tracy suggests that “But it is not a football team’s job to seek “character” guys except insofar as they believe those guys will be better in the locker room and in turn make for better on-field performance…Smart football coaches (just reading this article, you wouldn’t know the Pats won their conference twice in the past six seasons) who have to win the Super Bowl when 31 other teams with the same amount of money to spend on personnel are also trying to win the Super Bowl frequently make high-risk, high-reward decisions? I’m scandalized!” I understand why Tracy might leap lightly to that conclusion. But I think he’s missing something very important.


One of the most important tasks a team has, other than building a roster that can win, is giving fans reasons to build durable attachments to both individual players and a franchise as a whole. One of the seminal moments in my tenure as a young Boston Red Sox fan was the summer of 1997, when Wil Cordero, who was playing second base and designated hitter, was arrested for beating and threatening to murder his wife. The Red Sox pulled him temporarily from the lineup. When he returned, fans booed him. And though they should have acted more quickly, the team released Cordero at the end of the season. The message I took away from it was that I had particular reason as a woman to be a fan of the Red Sox, and of our fan base as a community that didn’t tolerate domestic violence.

The idea that a franchise is confident enough to win without men with sexual assault or domestic violence allegations or convictions on their record can be even more meaningful to women who are survivors, and to men who care about them. Kathy Redmond, who was a freshman at the University of Nebraska when Christian Peter raped her twice, and who later sued the university for sexual discrimination given their repeated refusal to take action against Peter even as he assaulted other women, said in 2004 that the Patriots’ decision to release Peter after signing him was “a life-saving event. Boston did what no city has ever done when it came to a problem player. They proved you can win a Super Bowl without a bunch of thugs.” That’s an idea that could stand as an accomplishment, no matter the kind of violent crime at issue.

There’s no law that says professional sports teams can’t sign athletes who have been charged with or convicted of crimes. I certainly believe that the criminal justice system should be more rehabilitative than retributive, and that people who have served their sentences should be able to find employment on their release. But there’s nothing wrong with reserving more admiration for franchises that make an opposition to violent crime, very much including violence directed at women and other intimate partners, a part of their brand, rather than treating those offenses as an unfortunate byproduct of asking young men to use their bodies to do damage, whether to swiftly-pitched balls, or to their fellow athletes.