FOXBORO, Mass. — Four weeks after Aaron Hernandez was escorted out of his home in handcuffs, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick stood before a room full of reporters and spoke for the first time since his former player was charged with first-degree murder.
The Wednesday press briefing came two days before the start of training camp and was designed to specifically address the issue that’s been hanging over the franchise for a month. Belichick read a prepared statement in which he offered sympathy for the family of murder victim Odin Lloyd and attempted to explain how the Patriots could have employed a man now accused of homicide.
Belichick took questions, but offered few insights as he insisted he was limited by the ongoing criminal investigation. But after weeks of silence, he defended his organization and how it does business.
“I, since I got here in 2000, have always emphasized the need for our team and our players and our organization to represent the community the right way, both on and off the field,” Belichick said. “And we’ve worked very hard together over the past 14 years to put together a winning team that’s a pillar in the community. … This case involves an individual who happened to be a New England Patriot. We certainly do not condone unacceptable behavior, and this does not in any way represent the way the New England Patriots want to do things.”
Hernandez, whose case was delayed until Aug. 22, happened to be in an Attleboro, Mass., courtroom as Belichick was speaking. And earlier Wednesday, Patriots defensive back Alfonzo Dennard was in a Nebraska courtroom for an arraignment on charges of violating probation relating to a DUI arrest.
Dennard will be at training camp this week. Hernandez was released within hours of his arrest.
But off-the-field behavior has drawn attention for the Patriots, whose system of evaluating players has come under fire.
“As the coach of the team, I’m primarily responsible for the people that we bring into the football operation,” Belichick said. “Our players are generally highly motivated and gifted athletes. They come from very different backgrounds. They’ve met many challenges along the way and have done things to get here. Sometimes they’ve made bad or immature decisions but we try to look at every single situation on a case-by-case basis, and try to do what’s best for the football team and what’s best for the franchise. Most of those decisions have worked out, but some don’t.”
Belichick was out of the country on vacation when Hernandez was arrested. Owner Robert Kraft spoke to select reporters earlier this month and said he was “duped” by Hernandez.
While Belichick said in his 7-minute, 22-second opening statement that he agreed “100 percent with the comments that Robert has already made on the situation,” he wouldn’t respond to a question about whether he too felt duped.
“I’ll refrain from making any more comments on any ongoing people involved in the judicial process,” Belichick said.
Wearing shorts, sneakers, a Patriots pullover and with a pencil resting on his right ear, Belichick spoke with a tinge of emotion during his opening remarks. He mentioned Hernandez by name in his first sentence and it was the last time he mentioned him by name.
“I’m going to address the situation involving Aaron Hernandez today,” Belichick said as he began his remarks. “Felt that it was important enough to do that prior to the start of camp. It’s a sad day, really a sad day on so many levels. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of the victim. … A young man lost his life and his family suffered a tragic loss. There’s no way to understate that.”
During the question-and-answer portion, he continually said the ongoing legal investigation prevented him from commenting on specifics and that he has advised his players to do the same.
“I know that there are a lot of questions — fair questions — about this subject and related subjects,” Belichick said. “Not trying to make the story disappear, but I respect the judicial process … Got a system in justice that deals with criminal charges and ultimately, the judge or the jury will determine the accountability.”
The Patriots’ veterans report for training camp Thursday and the team will make 2012 captains Tom Brady, Logan Mankins, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater available to the media. Brady was recently asked by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King about the Hernandez case and he said, among other things, that he has “moved on.”
Belichick echoed that sentiment when asked if the Hernandez story will be a distraction during training camp.
“It’s time for the New England Patriots to move on and that’s what our job is,” Belichick said. “And as I said, our goal is the same: to have a winning football team, to be a pillar in the community. That’s what our direction is; that’s what we’re going to do.”
Hernandez is also being implicated in a 2012 double-homicide in Boston. He was also allegedly involved in a Florida shooting earlier this year.
Asked if the team had any idea that Hernandez was involved in those cases, Belichick simply said, “No.”
Belichick was also asked if the issue of gun use among athletes is an issue drawing added attention around the NFL. He said the topic is discussed in league meetings by both local and league security people.
“We have league security meetings every year with the NFL and I’d say that topic has been addressed as long as I’ve been in the league, which would be [since] 1975,” Belichick said. “I think that topic has been addressed every single year.”
The Patriots selected Hernandez out of Florida in the fourth round of the 2010 draft. He was considered a first-round talent whose stock slipped because of maturity and personality concerns. He also reportedly tested positive for marijuana while in college.
Belichick was asked multiple times about the team’s evaluation process and whether it might change.
“The draft is nine months off,” Belichick said. “We have a process in place. Can it be improved? Can it be modified? It possibly can. We’re going to look at it. … Again, of the hundreds of players we’ve had through this program in the last 14 years, there’s been a lot of good ones, a lot of real good ones, and we’ll try to do a good job in bringing people into this organization in the future and try to learn from the mistakes that we’ve made along the way, of which there have been plenty.”
Text By Paul Doyle, Hartford Courant; Video By Rich Coppola, Fox CT