As the helicopters hovered over Aaron Hernandez and another media stakeout camps on another football player's curb, it should be obvious that such scenes are going to be a constant companion of the NFL. The Pacman Jones and Tank Johnson and Michael Vick and Jovan Belcher stories will continue to repeat themselves because the game has become too high profile. Players are more famous, they feel bulletproof, old associates don't go away and new trouble attaches itself to new fame.
The most popular league in the country has a problem many of its own players don't know how to handle: How do you steer yourself away from the things that can take you down?
The NFL dreads weeks like this. The last thing it needs is a constant video stream of one of its prominent players weaving through midday traffic and filling his gas tank before an armada of microphones while investigators work to see if the New England Patriots tight end has anything to do with a dead man in a nearby field. The NFL does everything in its power to make sure weeks like this one don't happen. But, of course, they will continue to happen because the odds also say they will happen. About 100 players appear on a team's roster at various points in a year. Multiply that over 32 teams and you have 3,200 possibilities for something bad to occur.
A few years ago – just as Roger Goodell was taking office as NFL commissioner – someone directly connected to his thinking didn't hesitate when I asked him to name the most critical issue facing the league.
"Player conduct," he replied.
He went on to say the NFL was terrified that more of its players seemed to be involved in increasingly violent off-field situations. There was too much talk about guns, about drinking, about hangers-on who latched on to athletes striking the big money and then holding on. He said advertisers hated such things. He said the league worried that each arrest or lawsuit or search warrant delivered at a player's home would drive away ad money. He said the issue threatened to derail Goodell's reign even before it got started, steering the conversation away from legacy issues like bringing a team back to Los Angeles and planting a franchise overseas. He hinted at a future of hard, new policies the league hoped would be a deterrent.
The policies – specifically a tougher personal conduct policy – to some degree have worked. Goodell has generally received praise for his tough stances even if punishments sometimes seem harsher in higher-profile cases that have dominated news cycles. But policies and league programs didn't drive Vick from the dogfighting operation or keep Belcher from killing his girlfriend or Josh Brent from driving 110 mph while under the influence of alcohol as police say he did just before his car crash killed his Cowboys teammate Jerry Brown. It didn't keep the police from searching Hernandez's home and it won't stop the next thing that is sure to come along soon enough.
We still don't know what involvement, if any, Hernandez had in the murder of Odin Lloyd. But the fact he has become this involved in the investigation says he has made the same mistake as so many other players before him and not cut out the people who can take him down.
As the helicopter cameras captured Hernandez's car on the streets of Eastern Massachusetts on Thursday, another image kept sticking in my mind: It was of Hernandez barely more than a week before, on the Patriots' practice fields in Foxborough. He stood in the middle of another media tangle, this one larger than the one that surrounded him at the gas pump on Thursday. The subject was a milder one: a player who many fans consider to be the solution to the league's image issues – Tim Tebow. Hernandez had played with Tebow at Florida. People wondered what Hernandez thought. What did he make of Tebow?
"Great teammate, great leader," he said. "That's all you can say."
Then he smiled.
Someone else asked him what he thought of the extra coverage that comes with Tebow, alluding to the fact there was probably four times the usual number of reporters than would normally be at a Patriots minicamp. He seemed unfazed.
"The media is going to be around," he replied. He added that the Tebow coverage would be a distraction only if the players let it.
Now the media is on Aaron Hernandez's driveway. Helicopters follow him. A body was found in a field the other day and he can't get away from it, leaving clear the fact that there is going to continue to be two NFLs: the safe, predictable one from last week in Foxborough and the one that gathers now on Aaron Hernandez's front lawn.
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