Thirteen years ago, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis faced double murder charges in Atlanta. Eventually, he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, with an agreement to testify against other defendants. No one was convicted of the killings.
While Lewis avoided the far more serious crime, the NFL still fined Lewis $250,000 for his role in, as prosecutors have described such cases, kicking dirt in the eyes of the authorities. If that’s the only charge prosecutors in Boston ever are able to pin on Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, either by guilty plea or through the introduction of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, Hernandez can count on an even stiffer sanction from the league office than the Lewis penalty.
Six years ago, Commissioner Roger Goodell overhauled the personal-conduct policy, expanding its reach and enhancing its penalties. Since then, Goodell has shown a willingness to take swift and decisive action against players who violate it. Pacman Jones received a one-year suspension despite never going to jail for any of his various legal entanglements at the NFL level. Ben Roethlisberger received a six-game suspension (reduced to four) despite never even being arrested. And the NFL indefinitely suspended Mike Vick the moment he was indicted for charges of dogfighting and gambling.
For Hernandez, the clearest apples-to-apples comparison comes from the cases of Leonard Little and Donte’ Stallworth. Both caused a death while driving drunk. Little was suspended eight games by Commissioner Paul Tagliabue in 1999. Stallworth received a full year from Goodell in 2009.
From Hernandez’s perspective, that formula would result in a fine of $500,000, if he pleads guilty to obstruction of justice. We’ve got a feeling, based on Goodell’s history of imposing discipline for off-field misbehavior, that won’t happen.
Based on reports from ABC and FOX 25 in Boston, police believe Hernandez deliberately destroyed (or at least tried to destroy) electronic evidence that would likely help solve the question of who killed Odin Lloyd. Goodell won’t react kindly to NFL players attempting so brazenly to prevent justice from being done, especially when “justice” entails finding a murderer. If Roethlisberger was suspended four games for being sued for sexual assault in Nevada and accused of another in Georgia despite never being arrested or charged, Hernandez could be in line for something like that or worse if he ultimately admits or is convicted of attempting to cover up a murder.
It gets far worse for Hernandez if he’s charged with murder. Or if the NFL, through the in-house police force known as NFL Security, determines that he did it. There’s no “if it doesn’t fit you must acquit” in the Court of the Commissioner. He remains, under the personal-conduct policy, the judge, jury, executioner, appeals court, and governor. And while the bounty case proved that diligent, aggressive lawyering could force Goodell to bump the appeal to his more lenient predecessor, Goodell and company surely learned from that experience how to avoid creating evidence that could be used to undermine his perceived neutrality.
So, basically, Hernandez is likely looking at a suspension if obstruction of justice sticks. If the NFL decides he did more than merely help cover things up, Hernandez may be gone from the game for a long time.
The more immediate question becomes whether the league and the Patriots will allow Hernandez to show up for training camp if the situation remains unresolved. The NFL and the Cowboys have managed to keep defensive tackle Josh Brent at a distance while he prepares for a September 2013 trial in the DUI death of Cowboys linebacker Jerry Brown. Look for the league and the Pats to finesse a similar outcome that would keep Hernandez from being a far bigger distraction than the player the Patriots signed only 10 days ago.
UPDATE 10:42 a.m. ET: This item was based on multiple reports than arrest warrant has been issued for Hernandez, and that he will be charged with obstruction of justice. The Boston Globe has since reported that no arrest warrant has been issued.