Saturday, June 29, 2013

PATRIOTS '81' JERSEY TRADE IS IMAGE SCRUB


The sight of several Patriot fans wearing jerseys with the number 81 on them, cheering
wildly as Aaron Hernandez was driven away from a court house made me cringe, so I
can imagine how owner Robert Kraft felt when he saw the same scene. I'm sure he wanted
to throw up.

The very next day, the Patriots announced that fans who bought jerseys with the name and
number of Hernandez, can trade them in for another jersey, free of charge. It's a nice gesture
by a first-class organization, seemingly one that demonstrates their commitment to the fans,
but this move is all about the Patriots and their image. This is nothing more than an image
scrub, as it tries to rinse everything Aaron Hernandez out of their organization.

Aaron Hernandez was a star playing for the most high-profile team in the NFL. He wore a
popular number with a team that was on national television more than any other team in
the league over the past three years, or the length of Hernandez' NFL career. He is accused
of one murder, and possibly two more. This isn't Ray Lewis or Rae Carruth, who played
on mediocre teams and "allegedly" played a hand in homicides. This is an accused, cold-
blooded killer playing for a team that America both loves and loves to hate.


Hernandez is accused of actually pulling the trigger and killing a man execution-style.
Unlike the cases of Carruth and Lewis, this happened in the age of Twitter, Facebook, and
a television world obsessed with wall-to-wall coverage of riveting stories. This is the kind
of attention that every franchise fears and the type of stain that is deep and won't go away
easily.

Robert Kraft spent more than 20 years trying to build a model NFL franchise, one that
was close to squeaky-clean and the envy of many organizations around the league. He
erected a beautiful stadium, won Super Bowls, and had the all-American boy, Tom Brady,
as the face of the franchise. It took just one night for Aaron Hernandez to cheapen it and
put a giant stain on the 'Patriots Way.'


With the '81' jersey swap, Kraft is trying to scrub that stain away. He doesn't want to see
that number in the stands, on the street, or national television. As an organization that
doesn't retire numbers easily, I can almost guarantee that '81' will be retired for the
upcoming year. The sight of it is painful for an organization that has done so many things
right, and this number is a reminder of their biggest mistake: drafting Aaron Hernandez.

The Patriots knew  the background of Hernandez before drafting him. They had
full knowledge of his failed drug tests, hair-trigger temper, and the crowd he hung out
with. So did the 31 other teams that didn't draft the best tight end in the nation in the
first three rounds. Everybody knew what they could possibly be getting in a player who
had the size of a tight end, but ran like a wide receiver. Hernandez was a game-changer,
yet, he lasted all the way until the fourth-round, a spot normally reserved for players you've
never heard of and from colleges that you didn't know existed.


The Patriots gambled on Hernandez, hoping the 'Patriots Way' could keep him in line.
It couldn't. Perhaps, if Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison and Willie McGinnest
still ruled that locker room, the Patriots would've had a chance to keep Hernandez from
going off the rails, but the crowd that takes up the locker space at Gillette Stadium is
just not as strong as it used to be.

The front-office compounded their mistake of drafting Hernandez by giving him a
lucrative contract extension they didn't have to. He was just two years into a 5-year
contract, and the Patriots could've waited to see if Hernandez had truly changed his
stripes. They lavished him with a $40 million contract, $12 million of which was fully
guaranteed. It was another huge mistake by an organization that makes very few of them.


The drafting of Hernandez turned out to be the biggest one in franchise history, by far.
One man has damaged the image of an organization significantly. It is ugly and a public
relations nightmare.

When Robert Kraft sees a fan with an '81' Patriots jersey, I'm sure he'd offer them 
$100 on the spot to acquire and then burn it. He can't do that, so Kraft and the organization
are doing the next best thing: offering the fans a jersey swap, free of charge. It's a small
step in the cleansing process, but it brings the Patriots a step closer to rinsing Aaron
Hernandez out of the organization for good.

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