Aaron Hernandez Needn’t Be Charged to Face Consequences

NFL players have faced league suspensions without being charged of crimes. Is Aaron Hernandez headed that way?

Given all that we don’t know about the murder investigation that has embroiled Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, let’s look at what we do know: even if Hernandez is never charged with a crime—whether it be obstruction of justice or accessory to murder—he could still face discipline from the league under the NFL personal conduct policy, which states, among other things, that:

It will be considered conduct detrimental for Covered Persons to engage in (or to aid, abet or conspire to engage in or to incite) violent and/or criminal activity. Examples of such Prohibited Conduct include, without limitation: any crime involving the use or threat of physical violence to a person or persons; the use of a deadly weapon in the commission of a crime; possession or distribution of a weapon in violation of state or federal law; involvement in “hate crimes” or crimes of domestic violence; theft, larceny or other property crimes; sex offenses; racketeering; money laundering; obstruction of justice; resisting arrest; fraud; and violent or threatening conduct. Additionally, Covered Persons shall not by their words or conduct suggest that criminal activity is acceptable or condoned within the NFL.

If league policy isn’t your thing, or you’re wondering how Hernandez could be suspended despite never being charged with anything, recall this: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell created precedent when he suspended Ben Roethlisberger for four games in 2007 after Roethlisberger was implicated in, but never charged with, the sexual assault of a 20-year-old woman. Just days before suspending Roethlisberger, Goodell went on the Dan Patrick show to justify the pending decision.

The issue here is with respect to a pattern of behavior and bad judgments. You do not have to be convicted or even charged of a crime to be able to demonstrate that you’ve violated a personal conduct policy, and reflect poorly not only on themselves, but all of their teammates, every NFL player in the league and everyone associated with the NFL.

Goodell made the comment in 2010 about Roethlisberger, but his words could become ominously appropriate for Hernandez as well. As with Roethlisberger, Goodell may view details pointing toward Hernandez’s involvement in the murder — however limited they may be — as a second offense, given the recent civil suit filed against Hernandez, which claims that in February the Patriots’ tight end shot a man in the arm before the bullet deflected to his head, causing him to lose an eye.

Revisiting Goodell’s language, you can see how the Commissioner might view these two instances as a “pattern of behavior and bad judgments.”

And even if Hernandez escapes the league’s wrath, a team-levied suspension is an option. Robert Kraft has been an outspoken supporter of the conduct policy, since its inception. “I hope [the conduct policy] sends a message to people in our league for how to conduct themselves,” Kraft said in a 2007 interview with USA Today. “We have to be careful. People in America can’t relate to overindulged athletes not acting responsibly.”