Po­ten­tial trou­ble is NFL’s re­al­ity

It ac­cepts gam­ble on high-risk, high-re­ward play­ers

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Sam Farmer

Aaron Her­nan­dez’s mur­der con­vic­tion is worst-case sce­nario as league gam­bles on high-risk play­ers.

Head­ing into the 2010 draft, NFL scouts took a long look at Florida tight end Aaron Her­nan­dez, and the red f lags were un­de­ni­able.

He had first-round tal­ent but also a rep­u­ta­tion for fre­quent mar­i­juana use, a hot tem­per and an un­sa­vory group of home­town friends who made regular trips to Gainesville, Fla., to visit him.

Her­nan­dez was ex­pected by many ex­perts to be among the top picks at his po­si­tion, but he dropped to the fourth round, in which he was se­lected by the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots, be­cause of con­cerns about his char­ac­ter.

One team scout, in a 2010 eval­u­a­tion re­port ob­tained by the Bos­ton Globe, said: “Self-es­teem is quite low; not well-ad­justed emo­tion­ally, not happy, moods un­pre­dictable, not sta­ble, doesn’t take much to set him off, but not an es­pe­cially jumpy guy.”

On Wed­nes­day, Her­nan­dez, 25, was con­victed of first-de­gree mur­der for the shoot­ing death of Odin Lloyd in 2013. The tight end, who earned mil­lions play­ing

for the Pa­tri­ots, re­ceived an au­to­matic sen­tence of life in pri­son with­out the pos­si­bil­ity of pa­role.

The league has long ac­cepted that tak­ing chances on play­ers with char­ac­ter f laws is part of the game. Her­nan­dez is a worst-case sce­nario, sig­nal­ing that ev­ery team is sus­cep­ti­ble — even the ul­tra-dis­ci­plined Pa­tri­ots, who have a rep­uta- tion of get­ting the best out of hard-case play­ers.

Ev­ery NFL team has play­ers with trou­ble in their pasts. It’s an un­seemly re­al­ity in a league in which the pres­sure to win is high and coaches are supremely con­fi­dent they can suc­ceed with prob­lem play­ers. The ma­jor­ity of NFL play­ers are good guys, but ev­ery locker room has its prob­lem play­ers.

Just this off-sea­son:

Dal­las signed Pro Bowl de­fen­sive end Greg Hardy, who was found guilty dur­ing a bench trial of as­sault­ing and threat­en­ing to kill his girl­friend. (Charges were dis­missed upon ap­peal when Hardy’s girl­friend failed to tes­tify.)

Buf­falo signed Pro Bowl guard Richie Incog­nito, the main in­sti­ga­tor in the bul­ly­ing of a Miami Dol­phins team­mate.

Den­ver Pro Bowl cor­ner­back Aqib Talib, who has a his­tory of phys­i­cal al­ter­ca­tions and ar­rests, is be­ing in­ves­ti­gated for his in­volve­ment in a fight out­side a Dal­las night­club that in­cluded the fir­ing of a gun.

All this fol­lowed the NFL’s most tur­bu­lent sea­son, when the off-the-field trans­gres­sions of Ray Rice and Adrian Peter­son over­shad­owed the games.

Rice had punched and knocked out his then-fi­ancee in an in­ci­dent caught on casino sur­veil­lance cam­eras; Peter­son was ac­cused of child abuse af­ter ad­mit­ting to hit­ting his son with a switch.

“I thought this was go­ing to be a very im­por­tant off­sea­son for the NFL to shore up brand and im­age, and to project a new re­spon­sive­ness to th­ese is­sues go­ing into next sea­son,” said Dan Hill, who works for a Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based cri­sis com­mu­ni­ca­tions firm. “But they’ve been hit with so many is­sues. … They can’t catch a break.”

An­other public re­la­tions chal­lenge lies ahead. Florida State quar­ter­back Jameis Win­ston, who is ex­pected to be se­lected No. 1 by Tampa Bay in this month’s draft, is an­other high-risk, high-re­ward tal­ent. He was ac­cused (though never charged) of sex­ual as­sault, ar­rested on sus­pi­cion of shoplift­ing crab legs and suspended for stand­ing on a ta­ble in his school’s stu­dent union and scream­ing ob­scen­i­ties di­rected at women.

“You’re not go­ing to have all choir boys on your team,” Cleve­land Browns Coach Mike Pet­tine said.

The Browns un­der­stand that more than most. A year ago, they used a first-round pick on Texas A&M quar­ter­back Johnny Manziel, whose free-wheel­ing style of play and his­tory of par­ty­ing were con­cerns. He turned out to be a flop on and off the field, and spent part of the off-sea­son in a treat­ment fa­cil­ity that spe­cial­izes in drug and al­co­hol re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

It’s not as if the Manziel ex­pe­ri­ence has caused the Browns to dramatically al­ter how they eval­u­ate prospects, though.

“You don’t want to have a knee-jerk re­ac­tion and say there were some things that hap­pened to us, so now all of a sud­den any­body with that type of back­ground is­sue is in­stantly off our draft board,” Pet­tine said. “That would be a pretty thin draft board.”

Rex Ryan, the new coach in Buf­falo af­ter six sea­sons with the New York Jets, brought Incog­nito on board, along with the volatile Percy Harvin. Seat­tle was more than happy to un­load Harvin last sea­son, trad­ing him to Ryan’s Jets for a lat­er­ound draft pick af­ter the re­ceiver had mul­ti­ple fights with team­mates.

“Teams want play­ers to play with rage, ut­ter rage, blind rage,” said Jody Ar­mour, a USC law pro­fes­sor. “So the play­ers are so­cial­ized that way. We stoke th­ese par­tic­u­lar gla­di­a­tors and then we’re shocked when those pas­sions go be­yond the gridiron and then start to spill over into ev­ery­day so­cial life.”

Her­nan­dez and Harvin were team­mates on Ur­ban Meyer’s Florida team be­fore they were drafted.

“There’s not one per­son that’s per­fect, and that’s you, me, every­body else sit­ting here, and every­body in the locker room,” Ryan said last month at the NFL own­ers meet­ings when asked about Harvin and Incog­nito. “Peo­ple make mis­takes. But we feel great about both of those guys.”

If a player is tal­ented enough, and can stay out of jail, there is an NFL team for him. Hardy is a prime ex­am­ple, sign­ing a one-year deal worth $11.3 mil­lion. His guilty ver­dict in North Carolina for beat­ing his girl­friend was set aside when he re­quested a jury trial. Even­tu­ally, af­ter re­ceiv­ing a fi­nan­cial set­tle­ment, the woman re­fused to co­op­er­ate with the dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice and the charges were dropped.

Dal­las Mayor Mike Rawl­ings was among those sharply crit­i­cal of the Cow­boys af­ter the sign­ing.

“I’m a big Cow­boys fan; I love them to death and I want them to beat the Ea­gles ev­ery time they play,” Rawl­ings told re­porters last month. “But at some point, be­ing a sports fan gets trumped by be­ing a fa­ther, hus­band, want­ing to do what’s right for women, so this is not a good thing. I don’t think I’m go­ing to be buy­ing Hardy jer­seys any time soon.”

Her­nan­dez was con­victed Wed­nes­day af­ter a jury de­lib­er­ated for 35 hours in Bris­tol County Su­pe­rior Court in Fall River, Mass. The jury ruled he had acted with “ex­treme atroc­ity or cru­elty” in the slay­ing of Lloyd, a 27-year-old semipro foot­ball player who was dat­ing the sis­ter of Her­nan­dez’s fi­ancee. The body of Lloyd was found shot six times in an industrial park near Her­nan­dez’s home.

The pros­e­cu­tion never gave a clear pic­ture as to why Lloyd was fa­tally shot other than in­di­cat­ing things es­ca­lated af­ter Her­nan­dez be­lieved he was dis­re­spected or be­trayed by Lloyd.

Her­nan­dez had signed a five-year, $40-mil­lion con­tract ex­ten­sion with the Pa­tri­ots the sum­mer be­fore the slay­ing. Next, he will stand trial in a sep­a­rate case, a 2012 dou­ble killing in Bos­ton.

Do­minick Reuter As­so­ci­ated Press

EX-NFL player Aaron Her­nan­dez lis­tens as he is found guilty of f irst­de­gree mur­der.

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