There are currently conflicting reports as to whether New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez in the recent death of associate Odin Lloyd. If Hernandez is charged and convicted of obstruction of justice or something more serious, his future in the NFL will obviously be the least of his concerns. But even if Hernandez is cleared, or the NFL season starts before he is tried and convicted of anything, the league could very well suspend him for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy and without a quick and total exoneration, there are precedents indicating that such a suspension is not only possible, but likely.
In 2007, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended then-Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry and then-Tennessee Titans cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones for what was deemed to be multiple violations of the league's policy. Henry, who died in 2009 from injuries suffered when he fell out of a truck, was suspended for eight games for multiple arrests, and Jones was suspended for the entire 2007 season. Jones had been involved in 10 different incidents in which he was investigated by police, including the 2007 shooting in a Las Vegas strip club that left three people injured, and one club employee partially paralyzed. In 2011, Jones was sentenced to a year's probation on two felony counts of coercion, which were pled down to one gross misdemeanor charge of conspiracy to commit disorderly conduct.
Goodell saw no issue with implementing league discipline in either case long before the courts came to any conclusions.
"Your conduct has brought embarrassment and ridicule upon yourself, your club, and the NFL, and has damaged the reputation of players throughout the league," Goodell wrote to both Henry and Jones. "You have put in jeopardy an otherwise promising NFL career, and have risked both your own safety and the safety of others through your off-field actions. In each of these respects, you have engaged in conduct detrimental to the NFL and failed to live up to the standards expected of NFL players. Taken as a whole, this conduct warrants significant sanction."
In April of 2010, Goodell gave Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a six-game suspension to start that season (later reduced to four), though Roethlisberger was not officially charged in the alleged sexual assault of a 20-year-old Georgia college student.
"I recognize that the allegations in Georgia were disputed and that they did not result in criminal charges being filed against you,” he said in his letter to Roethlisberger.
"My decision today is not based on a finding that you violated Georgia law, or on a conclusion that differs from that of the local prosecutor. That said, you are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct in Milledgeville that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible, or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans."
Goodell tacked behavioral conditions onto Roethlisberger's suspension, and no matter what happens with Hernandez, it's possible that he could be seeing a similar letter following a similar suspension. As Goodell emphasized to Roethlisberger, his use of the personal conduct policy can be as much an intervention as it is a reaction to confirmed criminal acts.
"Your conduct raises sufficient concerns that I believe effective intervention now is the best step for your personal and professional welfare," Goodell wrote to the two-time Super Bowl champion. "... I believe it is essential that you take full advantage of the resources available to you. My ultimate disposition in this matter will be influenced by the extent to which you do so, what you learn as a result, and a demonstrated commitment to making positive change in your life."
Hernandez's past would seem to raise the same types of concerns. He was questioned in a 2007 shooting in Gainesville, Fla., he faces a civil suit over the alleged shooting of a man in a Miami nightclub in February, and he had more than enough warning signs about his own personal conduct going into the 2010 NFL draft to have some teams very wary about his future. As it was, Hernandez was selected by the Patriots in the fourth round when he was probably a second-round talent.
And as Goodell said in a statement at the time of the Henry and Jones suspensions, there is courtroom law, and there is NFL law. They don't always have to intersect.
"We must protect the integrity of the NFL. The highest standards of conduct must be met by everyone in the NFL because it is a privilege to represent the NFL, not a right. These players, and all members of our league, have to make the right choices and decisions in their conduct on a consistent basis."