Commentary | Should Florida have done more to save Aaron Hernandez from himself?

Too often, college coaches turn a blind eye to warning signs of violence

adell@bradenton.comJuly 3, 2013 

Aaron Hernandez sits in a jail cell more than 1,000 miles away, and you think you and your child are safe.

Your son is an exceptional athlete. He can play football, basketball and baseball better than most. Barring an injury, you believe he has a clear path to success.

You are wrong!

Take nothing for granted.

In Manatee County, there are four former high school athletes serving prison terms for murders committed within the past four years.

Put guns in the hands of kids barely old enough to drive, and tragic consequences can erupt.

If they survive high school and get into college, as Hernandez did at the University of Florida, you think their chances for a good life improve.

But because of the way college athletes are coddled, things can get worse. They did for Hernandez, but things were so well-hidden he couldn't see the danger signs.

He had recently signed a multimillion-dollar contract with the New England Patriots and was set for life. Now he is in jail on murder charges.

Everybody is searching for answers.

They are hard to find, but here is one thing studies have shown: Coaches at the college level could help, but in their desire to win many become enablers.

A report in the 1990s by college professors Jeff

Benedict and Todd Crosset found that the conviction rate for college athletes accused of sexual assault was 38 percent, compared to 80 percent for the general college population.

Lots of money, discretionary time and a boatload of adulation for troubled athletes is a recipe for disaster, Benedict says.

From high school, and in some cases junior high, elite athletes are groomed to believe they are entitled.

Football players are taught how important it is to be tough, which can have negative ramifications if the lesson comes without boundaries.

Big-time college football coaches are expected to win. Their livelihoods depend on it. The lifestyles of their families are based on it.

Some look the other way when it comes to recruiting.

Benedict, an author, contributing writer to major magazines and professor at Southern University in Virginia, has done extensive research into college football players and violence.

College coaches said they didn't check criminal records of their recruits because it would be used against them in recruiting by other college coaches, Benedict reported.

"The reality is that too many coaches are unwilling to cut loose highly talented players who think they live by their own rules," he says.

When Hernandez was at Florida, then-head coach Urban Meyer's football team was racking up arrests at an alarming rate. Hernandez's behavior was likely lost in a sea of chaos and two national titles.

From the summer of 2005 through September of 2010, there were 31 off-the-field arrests involving 25 of Myers' players, according to USA Today.

"Where he (Hernandez) fits in is the fact that he has a past. Pretty typically, NFL players who end up on the wrong side of the law during their pro career have been on the wrong side of the law in college," Benedict told Bill Littlefield of WBUR Boston. "There's a pattern of that. It's not often that an NFL player just suddenly goes bad one day and goes off the rails. Usually there are tell-tale signs. His pattern seems consistent with that."

It was expected that the no-nonsense Will Muschamp would put the pieces together and change the culture when he took over.

During Muschamp's first season at Florida in 2011, there were seven reported arrests of his football players. The number dropped to three last season, but is up to four in 2013.

The arrest of starting linebacker Antonio Morrison on June 16 is disturbing because it fits a familiar pattern, and his punishment is similar to what Hernandez is believed to have received when he punched out a restaurant employee after he was asked to pay for two drinks he consumed.

Morrison was arrested after he punched a night club bouncer who would not let him in at a discount price that Morrison reportedly said he was entitled to because he was a member of the Florida football team. He received deferred prosecution, and, if he meets certain requirements, the battery charge will be dismissed.

A World Street Journal report said as a 17-year-old freshman Hernandez busted the eardrum of the restaurant employee he punched and officers from the Gainesville Police Department recommended a charge of felony battery. But it is unclear how the case was resolved.

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2112. Follow him on Twitter at @ADellSports.

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