Do you remember the time when LIFE gave Aaron Hernandez a second chance?
Maybe you remember when the 17-year-old was arrested after an altercation outside a bar in Gainesville and received no suspension from his team. Probably, you remember that 2008 season, when the rising tight end star did not play the first game due to testing positive for marijuana. Nevertheless, he went on to win the national championship as the leading receiver for the Florida Gators. Or maybe, you remember the 2010 NFL Draft when he got selected in the fourth round by the Patriots, despite the whole league having tons of information about his questionable behavior.
Whatever it is that you remember, you can now end the story by adding a quick note to it: this “second chance” experiment failed in the most atrocious and outrageous way you could ever imagine. Hernandez not only transformed himself into a killer, but also managed to become an expert at hiding his dark side, as said by Jeremy Fowler, who covered Hernandez during his time at Florida:
“On one end of the spectrum he could be a big jokester taking the towels from teammates in the locker room or taking cookies from a defensive line meeting. And he was great with the kids of coaches and he would play with them. There was that side of him that a lot of people knew…”
When these situations arise, our unavoidable necessity to debate and argue about social issues jumps right in. Immediately, we ask ourselves; should we give athletes second chances? What is the difference between professional athletes and fraudulent financial traders, should they receive these opportunities too? Who should get these benefits? What type of mistakes (crimes) follow under the “second chance” provision?
Unfortunately, all these debates, and all the time spent on arguing if the leagues, companies, or organizations should or should not provide second chances have done nothing but increase our confusion on how to manage the problem. Does anybody understand the Commissioner´s guideline for suspensions?
We need to change the way we see the problem, we need to think if we are asking the right question? Instead of debating if athletes should receive second chances, the question must be; are we doing it correctly? Are we learning from our mistakes?
It only takes one person (owner) willing to take the risk to make extra opportunities happen, the experiment will always be part of us, therefore, we might as well deal with it and improve it. Joe Mixon and the Bengals just reminded us that.
First, let’s be clear about something. Domestic violence, murder, and any other social problem are not NFL problems, not even “professional sports” problems. According to Benjamin Morris at FiveThirtyEight, the average man in his late 20s is about nine times more likely to be arrested than an NFL player for any cause. It is the NFL players’ popularity and exposure that creates the illusion that these athletes present a greater issue than the rest of society.
Now, the problem is that perception becomes reality. So, although stats do not show it, every time any NFL player fails society for the second time, their mistakes have greater negative impact on how we perceive athletes and leagues to be.
So, what are we doing wrong? Why are some athletes able to learn and change (Michael Vick) while others simply do not get it (Josh Gordon, Hernandez, Randy Gregory, etc.)? What can we do better?
The NFL possess a main peculiarity that differentiates it from any other organization in the world. A combination of FOOTBALL (greatest game ever invented…ha!) + MONEY (I´m talking about the amount of money that change lives, that makes you forget about Walmart). On the surface, this might look obvious and unimportant, but if we dig deeper, this unique mix is followed by a unique problem (and opportunity).
Put it as an equation: FOOTBALL (NEGATIVE) + MONEY = PROBABILITY OF CRIME
Make no mistake, football is full of positive effects and innumerous life lessons. Unfortunately, the bigger the impact something has, the bigger the risk it presents, and it would be naïve to ignore the sport´s negative repercussions. What are these negatives? The following quotes describe them beautifully:
“The problem with physical sports like football, in particular, is that they privilege one version of masculinity over others. This is a problem because the version of masculinity they encourage is a sort of dick-waving physicality, and because it means that there’s very few places in these sports for people who don’t fit the mold, physically or mentally.” – Tom Hawking at Flavorwire
“…football is a manifestation of traditional masculinity that is increasingly out of step with liberal society.” – Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine
In other words, NFL players (and all football players) are taught to be aggressive and deal with all kinds of pressure. Their success is based on how superior, mentally and physically, they become against their opponents. We, as spectators, applaud their aggressiveness every Sunday the same way we did it with Maximus Decimus. When players reach their goals, which could be something extraordinary such as winning a Super Bowl (Patriots case) or as little as getting a sack (Browns case), a special feeling of powerfulness and superiority is created among them.
Now, let’s add the money factor. Phycologists, at UC Berkeley, have found that money can powerfully influence our thoughts and actions in ways that we are often not aware of. More importantly, they have found that money significantly clouds moral judgment. Yes! This is the same reason why stupidly rich people tend to crash their fancy cars more often!
According to the Economic Policy Institute, to be in the richest 1% nationally, a household needs to have an annual income of at least $390,000. An NFL player´s minimum salary is $420,000. Safe to say that all NFL players are at a significant risk of “clouding” their morality.
As in any sum equation (FOOTBALL (NEGATIVE) + MONEY = SOCIAL PROBLEMS), if you want to decrease its final result, one or both variables need to be reduced as well.
How do we reduce football’s “superhuman” power feeling? Simple, by strongly and continuously reminding the players that they are not, at any point, bigger than the game (league). Suspensions? Really? If we think about it, suspending a player and then allowing him to come back is another way of showing him how powerful he has become. It is another way of saying that, no matter the circumstances, the team needs his services, and all you must do is wait.
Instead of suspending them, what about keeping them involved in the game but without “Maximus Decimus” participation (football play). This might sound stupid but, have we thought about the positive effects that could be caused if we force a player to “serve” the league? To work his way back? For instance, how about forcing him to coach a youth team and be present during games, as inactive and member of the helping crew? The point is, we need to do exactly the opposite of pushing them away from the game, they need to become involved more but in a humbler and even embarrassing way. We need to provide them with solid reminders that they are as human as every person watching them in the stands (with the exception of the guy pointing a laser at «Estadio Azteca»).
Finally, and most importantly, we need to change the way money is handled during these incidents. As of now, even though players get suspended without pay (they lose the money), whenever they come back they keep receiving huge salaries. Money must be HOLD until the league feels comfortable that the player has changed and learned. If we currently deal with terms like “dead money”, and “franchise tag”, the league won´t have a problem creating “hold salaries”.
Teams will sign them at any rate they need to, but only a MINIMUM percentage would be delivered to the player. Let´s say, something between $70,000 to $100,000. This will evidently help the players keep a correct moral judgment, appreciate the opportunity they are so fortunate to get, and, as a positive side effect, will serve as a risk insurance for teams (money would go back to the team´s cap if player gets suspended indefinitely).
Think about it, Michael Vick had to serve 18 months in jail, completely lost all his fortune, and came back to the league as a backup. Life reminded him that he is just a man with exceptional talent to play football, a game that, among so many other things, teaches us how to grow from our mistakes. Why not learn from his case which might as well be the most successful one in NFL history?
Let´s use a second chance to rethink the problem, otherwise, if Joe Mixon fails again, we would all be bystanders of a broken process. We would all be failing society in our inability to learn from our mistakes.