If you tuned in to the NFL Network on Wednesday morning, you saw police escorting Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez from his North Attleborough, Mass., home. Hernandez's hands were cuffed behind his back. Police pulled a white T-shirt over his chest and arms after cuffing him. Two cops put him in the backseat and helped to buckle him in.
You saw this looped ad nauseam, at least until Hernandez was arraigned -- at which point you surely saw those clips looped ad nauseam as well. Neither the clips nor the audio of analysis played over them will help you to understand what happened, because very few people know what happened. This won't stop anybody from guessing.
Last Monday, police found the body of Odin Lloyd, 27, in an industrial park, within a short drive of Hernandez's home. Lloyd, who had been dating Hernandez's girlfriend's sister, was shot to death within hours of driving around Boston with Hernandez and two other men. Reporters filled in the connection between Lloyd and Hernandez over subsequent days, while police searched his house twice. Following Lloyd's murder, Hernandez ordered a professional house cleaner to come to his home and allegedly smashed his cell phone and destroyed home security video of his house. On Wednesday afternoon, he was arraigned and charged with murder, as well as five-related gun charges.
Reporting on the Hernandez story presented an example of how you manage journalism in the absence of most of the Five Ws. The When was relatively easy to ascertain, at least via medical examiner's estimating time of death. The rest depended on how comfortable a given writer was with speculation. There was the Who: Odin Lloyd was dead, and Hernandez was part of the murder, part of a cover-up or just a friend of the wrong people. There was the What, which could mean accessory, conspiracy, obstruction or a mistake. Reports as to Where conflicted; Lloyd was or wasn't murdered in the industrial park where he was found. The Why remains a mystery.
In a feverish 24-hour news climate, admitting that you know virtually zilch is no longer an option, to say nothing of holding your tongue or pen until enough information comes across your desk to fill out a column. (This column, like everyone else's, is unavoidably guilty of at least this much.) Someone else will always beat you to making up anything that seems plausible, so you might as well confabulate first. Any amount of filler will do. Stu Scott standing by a window and pointing out clouds that sort of look like tight ends is not much less rigorous than much of what you've heard about Hernandez.
The nice thing about an absence of information, at least for the hackier members of the media, is that it allows you to hang any opinion on it. A cipher of a character and mysterious circumstances can be linked to anything. The indefatigable Dan Shaughnessy already penned a column about the Patriots losing "The Patriot Way." It bemoans the team overlooking "character issues" to sign an effective player, which would be a thoughtful statement if you didn't remember Spygate or Rodney Harrison being voted the biggest cheap-shot artist in the league by fellow players or Vince Wilfork's connections with illegal boosterism at the University of Miami or Tom Brady shacking up with a model while his ex-girlfriend was pregnant with his child. The only real takeaway from Shaughnessy's concern trolling is the deep suspicion that he has a mirror with the words "WHO WILL THINK OF THE CHILDREN?" stenciled on it so he can see his face and the answer reflected back at him.
Then there was this risible example of drug paranoia, which was echoed all morning on the NFL Network by former Ravens head coach Brian Billick. Aaron Hernandez did drugs in college and knew "unsavory" people, so really all this was inevitable. Never mind that drug use and knowing people who have broken the law is probably the normative state of almost every attendee of honors colleges across the country.
Even in the absence of further information, you will probably read more columns like this, because the most reasonable alternative isn't very sexy. "We don't know what's happening" isn't an exclusive, and it's far less interesting than, say, "Reefer Madness Drives NFL Player to Gangland Execution."
Even more lazily, ascribing unique, personal character issues to Hernandez is a safer long-term job strategy: It only alienates Aaron Hernandez. Saying, "The NFL is filled with players who have no idea how to manage their lives; it is essentially disinterested in helping them to learn how, and that may play a role here," means making enemies of people who hand out exclusive interviews and team access. Making the story about Hernandez alone absolves big systems of responsibility for potentially contributive systemic problems. For instance, admitting many NFL players are immature dopes requires confronting an NCAA farm system that prioritizes practice, strength-and-conditioning training and memorizing playbooks, while looking askance on players' achieving more than the minimum GPA requirements as a distracting excess of zeal.
Because once you eliminate the possibility that Hernandez's actions -- whatever they are -- derive exclusively from a unique dark streak in a sinister character, the most immediate take is probably that he's a big dumb guy who did a big dumb (evil) thing. That's not going to fuel a 72-hour Skip Bayless monologue about how a religious (white) soon-to-be tight end like Tim Tebow would never do such a thing. What it will fuel is wondering what sets him apart from a hefty chunk of other NFL players or, indeed, people generally. That's a much harder question to answer, and it's one that few people within or commenting on the NFL machine have any incentive to grapple with. Assuming that they need to -- which, in the absence of information, perhaps they don't. Although, a Browns rookie was charged with attempted murder on Tuesday.