How can NFL prevent future Hernandez-like incidents?

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, a man who’s hung his hat on tough justice, has to be horrified by the daily cycle of news coming from former Patriots star tight end Aaron Hernandez.

The league will be quick to point out that serious crimes committed by its players have been on the decline over the last half-dozen years, but that’s not going to temper the current narrative. Since the Super Bowl, there have been at least 28 players arrested. And it’s no coincidence that a significant portion of the alleged crimes seem to occur during the relatively short period of time before training camp when players aren’t required to be at their respective facilities.

This is no time for the NFL to be touting its crime-fighting efforts, pointing out that its players are arrested at a lower rate than the rest of society. Goodell would be wise to admit the NFL has an enormous problem, and I’m not simply talking about the public relations fallout.

The NHL and MLB seem to be doing a much better job at keeping their players out of jail. And the NBA’s not far behind. I realize the NFL has a lot more players when you consider that more than 2,000 will report to training camp in a few weeks. But that’s even more reason for the league to be vigilant in its response to the Hernandez case.

For the record, the Dallas Cowboys did not take Hernandez off their draft board when he was coming out of the University of Florida.
And I’m somewhat dubious of a recent report that the Bengals removed Hernandez from their list of prospective draftees. Considering the Bengals’ history, player removed from that board should immediately report to prison.

A Cowboys source told me Monday the organization would’ve considered Hernandez as a “value pick” in the sixth or seventh round. And I actually applaud the Cowboys for being honest about their stance. The easy thing for teams to do right now is talk about how they never would’ve considered such a troubled player. It’s also incredibly disingenuous.

And in a somewhat related development, former Gators coach Urban Meyer should stop whining about being blamed for Hernandez’s actions. I’m not saying Meyer could’ve prevented some of these alleged crimes, but for him to act like he shouldn’t be questioned for how things got this out of control is laughable. And while we’re on the subject, we should probably stop celebrating the Patriots for immediately cutting ties with Hernandez. They’re the ones who took a look at his past and decided he was worth the risk.

I’ve been asking NFL personnel types if there’s anything more the league could do to prevent the next Aaron Hernandez from entering the league. One longtime scout thinks the NFL would be wise to follow the example of a lot of companies and automatically ban any player who has a felony on his record. I don’t think college players are as terrified of the repercussions of their behavior as they need to be. If the NFL had more of a zero-tolerance policy, perhaps college players might approach things differently.

It’s also high time the league actually hold teams responsible for drafting players with questionable character. Maybe if teams actually feared losing draft picks as a punishment, they would think twice about selecting certain players. And one longtime AFC executive I spoke to thought that heavy fines might be effective.

“Harsh penalties for infractions have been delivered under Goodell,” the executive e-mailed. “We do a lot on background and character and mental testing, but to predict outcome like this, that’s hard. Fines to the club puts due pressure on a GM, who answers to an owner, who’s not interested in losing money … therefore trickle back accountability from GM to ownership to select or invest in high-risk players.”

Goodell has certainly taken positive steps since replacing Paul Tagliabue, but there is much to do. This is no time to be taking a defensive approach.

The Hernandez story alone demands that the NFL take action. And quickly.