Aaron Hernandez
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In media terms, collision of the NFL and true crime is an irresistible force

Aaron Hernandez is not O.J. Simpson. But by the time the summer’s over, don’t be surprised if you feel like you’re watching an instant replay.

The arrest and first-degree murder charges leveled Wednesday against Hernandez — a star New England Patriots tight end — are news by any measure. Yet the collision of the U.S.’ most popular sport with true crime has already begun to create a sense the case is going to receive a disproportionate amount of coverage, as much because of demographic possibilities (“Hey, we can get more men to tune in”) as its inherent news value.

“It was a feeding frenzy, as you would expect in a situation like this,” ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap told the “SportsCenter” team by phone, describing the scene around the courthouse.

Certainly, no network was more frenzied than ESPN, which invariably must juggle its status as a news organization with the more natural posture of catering to narrowly focused sports fans in such instances, folks who care more about roster changes than police blotters. Beyond the murder charges, for example, the network’s on-air graphics asked “Who’s catching Tom’s passes?,” a reference to what losing Hernandez as a receiver would mean for the Patriots’ passing game.

To its credit, ESPN did pose another question — namely, whether the National Football League has an image problem. Inasmuch as ESPN pays billions to the league for the right to televise games and breathlessly chronicles its every move, wondering aloud about the NFL being damaged by some of its negative publicity would appear to strike a blow on behalf of journalistic independence.

Even so, ESPN feels a bit over its head dealing with a story of this kind, while news networks like CNN are a trifle out of their element. ESPN’s Chris Mortensen did mention that 27 NFL players have been arrested since the Super Bowl, but quickly downplayed that figure statistically given the number of pros employed by the league. Nor was there any immediate mention during the time I was watching of Ray Lewis, the former Baltimore Ravens star charged with murder in 2000 (before pleading guilty to obstruction of justice), who is now employed as an analyst by none other than ESPN.

In a broader sense, there’s a cumulative effect when several crime-related stories begin to dominate the cable universe, with the trial of George Zimmerman — charged in the death of teenager Trayvon Martin — serving as HLN’s signature overheated franchise of the moment. Unfortunately, the supply of attorneys willing to yell at each other on air remains an easily-renewable resource, and summer is a period when cable news always seems to have more time to spare for everything from shark attacks to sensational murders to philandering politicians.

“And now to the refreshing distraction of sports,” said ESPN anchor John Anderson, reaching for an awkward segue from Hernandez to the network’s Wimbledon tennis coverage.

But like Schaap said, this is a feeding frenzy. And as long as there’s fresh blood in the water, ESPN is going to have to get accustomed to being about more than just the customary wins and losses.

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