We are in full backspace mode when it comes to Aaron Hernandez. Thursday morning, the University of Florida removed the brick paver that honored Hernandez's All-America season in 2009. Florida's All-America players get a brick in the Gator Walk leading up to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Apparently the Gators didn't want fans thinking about murder as they filed into the Swamp.
On Wednesday, Bill Belichick gave a statement to the media about Hernandez -- but made it clear that he won't be talking about him anymore. The New England Patriots will try their best to play as if their Pro Bowl tight end never existed.
Before we get any deeper into this, let's remember: Aaron Hernandez hasn't been convicted of anything. He is charged with the murder of Odin Lloyd, and is being held on those charges, but in the eyes of the law he is still an innocent man. He might still walk away free. At which point all this erasing would require some apologies.
Still: He's charged with one murder. Boston police are also investigating him in a double murder. He's facing a civil lawsuit that says he shot a man in Miami. A Gainesville police report from 2007, when Hernandez had just enrolled at Florida, said he hit a bar employee so hard he busted the guy's eardrum. Let's stipulate, for the moment, that Aaron Hernandez is a dangerous man.
Then the questions are: Did his coaches know that? And did they ignore it because of his talent? Urban Meyer, Hernandez's coach at Florida, hasn't talked about that at all. Belichick talked in general terms about how the Patriots look into a player's history in great detail and try to project how he'll behave as a pro: "Unfortunately, this most recent situation, with the charges that are involved, is not a good one on that record."
Based on what we know, I'm not sure either coach carries much weight of blame here.
It's not clear what happened to the Gainesville case -- the police report said the man Hernandez hit had talked to the university about a settlement. It's possible that Meyer never disciplined Hernandez and covered the whole thing up. But Hernandez played three years at Florida. He was suspended for one game for failing a drug test.
Apparently scouts put out enough bad vibes about Hernandez to drop his stock in the NFL draft. When he fell to the fourth round, the Patriots did what businesses often do -- they took a low-risk gamble. Again, as far as we know, Hernandez gave the Pats no trouble in his three years with the team.
The difference, if anything, is between what we know the NFL is like and what we hope college is like.
Pro football is a job. The players are men, and they're treated like men even though they don't always act that way. The NFL is not about character development, unless a team sees that as a way to win on the field.
College football … well, it's just about impossible to defend the way it works, even if you love it. But the one true thing about it is that most of the players are not men yet, because most college students are not grown-ups yet. College is the buffer zone where you figure out how to be an adult. One of the things you learn is that actions have consequences. One of the things you hope is that adults at a university will help steer a student right.
Aaron Hernandez was 17 when he enrolled at Florida. His dad had died the year before. It's clear that Urban Meyer helped Hernandez develop into an outstanding football player. That is Meyer's job, and the reason he is now getting paid millions to coach Ohio State. It's harder to say if his job goes beyond that. College football is such a big business, it seems silly to hope that programs help their players become better human beings. But that is part of what college is for.
In the end, if Aaron Hernandez did what he's accused of doing, he's responsible. But when any story comes to a terrible end, it makes sense to step back through time and see what might have changed it. I don't know if Hernandez could have been helped. I don't know what he needed. Whatever it was, he didn't get enough.
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