Aaron Hernandez Murder Charges Put ESPN in Uncomfortable Position

Aaron Hernandez
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

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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  1. oddw0n says:

    People still watch ESPN? Go figure. Who gives a damn what ESPN has to say about anything? Like I’m listening to the guy who does my dry cleaning for marital and financial advice? ESPN is in the back pocket of the NFL. Ever notice who does Monday Night Football? That’s a pretty sweet contract.
    If you can’t make up your mind about the NFL, and its hiring practices, you deserve to waste your Sundays watching that garbage.
    Count me OFFICIALLY OUT of any interest at all in NFL football.
    Big Ben gets to WHIP IT OUT … OJ did his decapitation show … Aaron Hernandez executes people, and on-and-on.
    Aaron Hernandez had GANG TATS on his hands – and the NFL knew it! Yet they still hired him. He is a NUT (and they KNEW IT) … and they still hired him. Just because he can catch a ball. I own a business. I would wish him a pleasant day, and never think about him again.
    If anybody that knows, and understands the details, of this story and still watches the NFL … You’re an idiot.
    Good Bye NFL.

  2. G. Jardoness says:

    God forbid ESPN be shook from regurgitating an hour’s worth of ‘highlights and recaps’, 24 hours a day, over a half-dozen repackaged and window-dressed channels, and breaking only to ex-posit these kinds of flatulent mea culpas in ‘regard’ to the rest of the world’s events.

    The only thing ESPN should be embarrassed about is not knowing how to walk and chew gum at the same time, given all their outlets and resources, and their programming which is already awash with ‘tickers’, ‘teaser blocks’, and ‘split-screens’…

    And instead; To flail-about and juggle a live event like a hot potato over their network, and trot out a pair of forth-string presenters intent on making their mark through over-alliteration, and allow Lester Munson to flaunt his ignorance about the arraignment process, (Insisting we could ‘only’ surmise the severity of the charges based on the amount of bail — when anyone who’s ever seen a courtroom drama knows, the charges and their severity are clearly spelled out by the prosecutor as part of their justification for arrest), and to have the perennially speculative Roger Cossack endlessly offer his ‘expert opinion’ which has demonstrably had all reliability of a Magic-8 Ball — ALL, while the prosecutor is laying out a detailed, moment-by-moment timeline of the events they believe occurred based on the evidence they’ve gathered, (which had to sought out after the fact).

  3. As someone who watches ESPN daily and as someone who is completely in shock over this story, I think it’s ESPNs job to question sports leagues and the culture of the respective sport(s). Allowing these guys (in any professional league) to skirt by charges and allowing them to keep playing after off field incidents is a huge problem that has not been talked about. I think it needs to be noted that Hernandez was not the only player released by a team yesterday. A Bengals player was released after being charged with attempted murder. These big issues as well as the smaller ‘incidents’ need to be addressed and these players need to be held accountable for their actions.

  4. Michelle says:

    Yes .. He did so wrong but since he is in NFL he is either gonna get a slap on the had , he’ll be out because a football player shot someone and they went and bailed him out … And since he is a Tight End they might find him a good laser …

  5. Tom G. says:

    no one is talking about this angle. I think its a good point. ESPN is an empire and its always interesting to see what moves they make when their moral/business compass is challenged.

  6. JJK says:

    Yes… instant replay… of the O.J. trial… because 19 years ago really feels like just yesterday…

  7. Whether or not the NFL has an image problem, I can’t say. But I wonder how much longer before such arrests and crimes are so ordinary that it’s no longer news. That’s when they and we are really in trouble.

  8. Dwayne Johnson-Cochran says:

    Added to this mix is the fact that the NE Patriots are ESPN’s home team. Like the Boston Red Sox and the Boston Celtics, ESPN always gives inordinate amount of time and coverage to teams from the Northeast. This murder trial and navel gazing of all things Patriots will eventually become a very sorry and revealing examination of just how fairly ESPN reports or how often they apologies for their misdeeds.

    • oddw0n says:

      You can’t tell that the NFL has an image problem? Are you serious? Do you pay any attention at all to the game, it’s history of trouble, and the blind eye it turns every time?
      So you surmise that if the NFL bloats itself with a sufficient number of thugs, nobody with notice after a while. Then we’re in some sort of trouble? You’re duller than a brick.
      Might wanna take that moral compass back for a refund … it ain’t workin’ bro.

  9. To Brian Lowry, you mention OJ but seem to have forgotten Rae Carruth who in 2001 was found not guilty of first degree murder but guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. Carruth was sentenced to 18-24 years in prison.

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