Rushing To Judgement

Have any of you been following the Aaron Hernandez story? For those of you who have not, a quick summary: Hernandez was, until last week, a player for the New England Patriots (hint for those of you who are totally unaware of American sports: the Patriots are a professional football team–that’s American-style football, not soccer). This week he is in jail, charged with murder and several crimes related to possession of weapons.

Hernandez was arrested at approximately 9 am on Wednesday, 26 June. By 10:30 am, the Patriots had terminated his contract and removed all merchandise with his name on it from the team store. The charges were not announced until almost 3 pm. In other words, the team cut him loose four hours before anyone officially knew what he was accused of.

Let me emphasize here that Hernandez has not been convicted–news reports are suggesting that his trial may not even begin until next year.

After the Patriots fired Hernandez, the National Football League warned all of the other teams that they were reviewing the case and considering whether Hernandez should be suspended or otherwise penalized. In other words, “Hire at your own risk because we’re going to hold our own trial before the official one”.

Hernandez now has no job and no prospect of finding one in his field. Let’s hope for his sake that he’s got some serious savings, because he’s going to need it to hire a good lawyer.

Before anyone says anything, yes, I’m aware that there is apparently a lot of evidence against him. Remember that under the American legal system, the accused has the benefit of a presumption of innocence; the accuser has to prove his guilt. Until such time as the case comes to trial and his guilt is proven to a jury, he is considered to be innocent and entitled to the best representation he can find to defend himself. I don’t know what all the evidence is, and so I can’t argue that holding him without bail is unjustified. But the Patriots don’t know what all the evidence is either. By letting him go–kicking him out the door, in fact–they’re sending a clear message that they believe him to be guilty.

By terminating his contract and warning other teams against signing him, the Patriots and the NFL have seriously limited his options. Put yourself in Hernandez’ place: you’ve been arrested for a crime, and before you even hear the charges against you, your employer fires you and blacklists you through your industry. Even if it’s legal (because you had been employed on an “at will” basis that allows your employer to release you at any time for any reason), you’re going to be (a) pissed off and (b) screwed. So is Hernandez. And even if he’s found innocent, he’ll have been out of football for over a year: that’s not going to help his skills or increase his desirability for another team.

This is purely a PR move by the team and the league, not wanting to be associated with a possible murderer. Understandable, certainly, but it’s going to put them in a really uncomfortable position if he’s found innocent. What kind of apology can they make that would clear that PR nightmare?

What if they had taken a different approach: stand behind him, make statements to the effect of “innocent until proven guilty”, “evaluate the situation as it unfolds”, and “hope the accusations prove unfounded”? They might take a small PR hit for weasel-wording, but it keeps their options open: if he’s found guilty, then they cut him loose; if not, they welcome him back and bask in the good PR. And in the meantime, cynically-speaking, it wouldn’t hurt their bottom line. Season ticket sales aren’t going to be affected much, especially given the Patriot’s place as a perennial front-runner–and the prices that jerseys with his name on them are bringing on eBay suggest that keeping his gear in the store would make up most of what little shortfall there might have been.

Given the choices the Patriots and the NFL had, there really wasn’t a good option, but IMNSHO, they picked the worst of evils instead of the lesser.