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Arrests of NFL players take toll on public image

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”Sports do not build character. They reveal it.”

John Wooden (1910-2010)

Much has been revealed about the character of former New England Patriot tight end Aaron Hernandez in the past few days.

In the debris of the tragic and unnecessary death of Odin Lloyd, at least three portraits emerge:

A young man haunted by the untimely death of his father who turned to drugs and gangs as a balm to ease the pain.

A remarkable football player whose size and raw athletic ability led coach Bill Belichick’s team to look beyond the many red flags to take a chance and reward early career success with a $40 million contract.

And, ultimately, a thug who appears ready to snuff out those who might stand in the way of the lifestyle to which he ascended.

Of course, it is important to remember the murder charges against Hernandez are just that — accusations, not proven facts.

It is also easy to rationalize the murder charges are an outside-of-football problem, and do not cast a shadow over the NFL.

After all, the league and its teams are a business, not nannies responsible for the care and upbringing of young athletes.

The truth of the matter, though, is that the NFL has to be more aggressive in mentoring its players for its own good.

Hernandez is the latest poster child for pro athletes gone wild. He is not alone.

Since the Super Bowl, 28 NFL players have been arrested (see chart on Page B8). That’s almost one per team in just a little more than four months.

The Colts’ Joe Lefeged became the latest member of this inglorious club when he was arrested for possession of an unregistered gun following a police chase in Washington, D.C. over the weekend.

On the heels of the Hernandez saga, it seems bigger than it probably deserves.

But that is also the point for the NFL.

The most financially successful sports league in the world has spent decades honing its image. Its unmatched popularity has grown in part because it stayed largely clear of the PED-fueled scandals of MLB and the gangsta-wannabe excesses of the NBA.

A growing relationship between players and police blotters threatens that.

There are many admirable reasons for the NFL to take a more parental look at this issue and do a better job mentoring its players and policing their off-field conduct. To those whom much is given, much should be expected. At the least, this should be law-abiding actions.

The cold, hard bottom line is that this has the potential to affect the NFL’s bottom line. No, Hernandez’s arrest (or that of 27 other players this offseason) is not going to put an immediate dent in ticket sales or TV revenue.

It does, though, diminish the image of the league. Over time, that adds up.

That is why this is an issue for the league now.

Hernandez is the immediate problem, and we should not minimize those circumstances.

As John Wooden suggested, sports reveal character.

What is being revealed about the character of too many NFL players this off-season is a troubling problem for the league.

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