Rolling Stone fans smoke from Aaron Hernandez's Florida days, but not fire

Mike Ehrmann

To be fair, ranking the 100 best Beatles songs for the 44th year in a row is a lot easier.

A sprawling investigation of the life and times of Aaron Hernandez by Paul Solotaroff (with Ron Borges, according to the byline) was published online this morning, and will likely appear in the September 4, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone. It tackles the circumstances in which Hernandez was raised, the trouble he got into at Florida, and the spiral that terminated with him being arrested and charged with the murder of Odin Lloyd. It's generally very good and compelling, and includes many details about Hernandez's childhood that help flesh out who he was before he became Aaron Hernandez, All-American.

And it also overplays incidents that happened during Hernandez's time at Florida by sexing up previously reported incidents, casting aspersions on Urban Meyer with no new evidence, and either willfully or mistakenly fudging the chronology of Hernandez's troubles in a troubling fashion.

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Here's how Rolling Stone teased what it had on Hernandez on Tuesday night:

In college his coach (then-University of Florida head coach Urban Meyer) may have helped cover up failed drug tests, along with two violent incidents — an assault and a drive-by shootout outside a local bar.

But here's how Solotaroff writes the substance of that "may have helped cover up failed drug tests" bit:

As a sophomore, Hernandez was benched for the season opener, meaning he’d likely failed drug tests over the summer. But Meyer denied it, saying he "wasn’t ready to play," again giving cover for bad behavior. "Meyer kept us at such a distance," says the reporter, "or flat-out lied, that we couldn’t verify a pot suspension."

Hernandez would fail other drug tests, according to reports, and should have faced bans for up to half a season, per school regulations. Instead, he didn’t miss a single snap, though he was seen hanging out with a crew of thugs at a local bar.

Here's how Solotaroff treats the 2007 incident in which Hernandez punched Michael Taphorn, a bouncer at The Swamp restaurant, for which he was eventually given deferred prosecution (note: this section of the article comes prior to the section about the drug tests, hence "a local reporter who was covering the team" becoming just "the reporter" above):

But even Tebow couldn’t save him from himself once Hernandez got a few beers in his system. The pair went out that April to a bar near campus, where the underage Hernandez had an argument with a waiter and punched him in the head as he walked away. Michael Taphorn suffered a ruptured eardrum, but didn’t press charges on Hernandez, telling the cops he was talking to Florida coaches, according to a police report. The matter seems to have been settled quietly out of court, which was fine with Gainesville cops and the DA. They treated the punch-out as a juvie offense, giving Hernandez a deferred prosecution on the hush.

"We didn’t hear that story till much, much later – the police didn’t file a report," says a local reporter who was covering the team.

And here's how Solotaroff mentions the 2007 shooting in which Hernandez and Reggie Nelson were both identified before having those identifications rescinded:

By 20, Hernandez was a first-team All-American and winner of the 2009 John Mackey Award as the country’s top tight end. He could have written his own ticket if he’d kept his nose clean: been a high-first-rounder in the 2010 NFL draft and pulled an eight-figure bonus to sign. Instead, he cemented his don’t-touch rep by getting embroiled in a shooting outside a bar. "He was out with the Pounceys and [ex-Gator safety] Reggie Nelson, and some guys tried to snatch a chain off one of the Pounceys," says the local reporter. "The guys drive off, then stop at a light, and someone gets out of a car and shoots into their car through the passenger window. One victim described the shooter as possibly Hispanic or Hawaiian, with lots of tattoos on his arms." The Pounceys were questioned as witnesses to the crime, but Hernandez invoked his right to counsel and never gave a statement, most odd since he was also called as a witness. No charges have ever been filed, and the case is still open. Again, he walked away unscathed: He wasn’t even named in the police report. In hindsight, it might have been the worst thing for him. He seems to have concluded, with an abundance of probable cause, that he was untouchable.

The substance of that "may have helped cover up" charge is in Meyer's three different reactions to three different situations, one of which is grossly misreported by Rolling Stone.

The accusation that Meyer covered up a failed drug test is at least technically true. Meyer did tell reporters at the time that Hernandez "wasn't ready to play," but that was widely regarded as code for a failed drug test, and he told The Gainesville Sun's Pat Dooley this July that Hernandez did, in fact, miss that 2008 season opener for a failed drug test. If Meyer was covering for Hernandez by not revealing to the world the results of his drug tests, or publicly referring to suspensions as suspensions, he was doing the same for every other Florida player.

And, sure, there's an argument to be made that Meyer was wrong to do that, but given the hysteria ginned up over failed drug tests, silence or quiet is usually a more prudent choice; it's understandable that Meyer would do what was in his power to keep his players' names from getting "failed drug test" attached to them, or their misdeeds attached to him. The oft-repeated bit about Hernandez failing six drug tests at Florida that sources from a quote in this 2010 Boston Globe article from an anonymous AFC personnel director — the quote sounds almost like a rhetorical question in context, and is far from confirmation that Hernandez failed more than two drug tests — does not appear in the Rolling Stone article, but might provide the foundation for Solotaroff to write "Hernandez would fail other drug tests, according to reports, and should have faced bans for up to half a season, per school regulations." Never mind that that "Five? Six?" quote isn't quite corroboration: It's reported, and thus fair game as foundational, circumstantial support.

The accusations that Meyer covered up the other two incidents are spurious at best. That "local reporter who was covering the team" — who is inexplicably unnamed in the Rolling Stone story, but sure sounds a lot like a certain Orlando Sentinel columnist to me — should know well that one reason that story of Hernandez punching out a bouncer didn't become public until 2013 was that Hernandez was a minor at the time, and thus subject to privacy laws. This passage also rankles me:

The matter seems to have been settled quietly out of court, which was fine with Gainesville cops and the DA. They treated the punch-out as a juvie offense, giving Hernandez a deferred prosecution on the hush.

"Seems to have been settled quietly out of court" twists the fact that most minor first offenses in Gainesville turn into deferred prosecution agreements; "treated the punch-out as a juvie offense" twists Hernandez actually being a 17-year-old juvenile at the time; "on the hush" similarly twists Hernandez's juvenile records being sealed in keeping with the law. And Solotaroff never goes further than previous reports, which also included the fact that police reports mention Taphorn being in contact with Florida coaches, to produce any material evidence of a cover-up.

But if things are twisted there, they're more seriously misrepresented in regards to Hernandez's involvement in the 2007 shooting, which Solotaroff never even bothers to connect to Meyer. "Instead, he cemented his don't-touch rep by getting embroiled in a shooting outside a bar" after several sentences about Hernandez's completed college career suggests to me that the shooting happened in 2009 or 2010, prior to the 2010 NFL Draft, and not prior to most of Hernandez's career. Hernandez was, in fact, named in the police report, with his name not being redacted in one version of the report that was released to ESPN — though that report was released "in error", according to Gainesville police, because it is related to a still-open investigation, and the now-public version of the report blacks out mentions of Hernandez because he was still a juvenile at the time of the shooting. And discussing that shooting without outlining a lot of the reasons it was murky, and eventually dead-ended as an open investigation — multiple witnesses mentioned seeing a black man in a green polo shoot into a car, not exactly Hernandez's description, and the initial identifications of both Hernandez and Nelson were later recanted — seems incomplete to me.

Above all, teasing that incident as "a drive-by shootout outside a local bar," as Rolling Stone did on Tuesday night, is plainly wrong: The alleged shooter in the incident was a pedestrian who shot into a car, not the other way around; there was no exchange of shots that "shootout" usually implies; "outside a local bar" doesn't jibe with the police report's details about the shooting happening near the intersection of University Avenue and 13th Street, unless the Beef 'O' Brady's connected to the Holiday Inn counts.

And why does that phrasing of the teaser matter? Because folks like Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio latch onto it and write "it's the first time anyone's suggested that Meyer had an affirmative role in keeping Hernandez's alleged misdeeds quiet," when the substance of the story doesn't suggest anything previously suggested, and others have suggested Meyer had some sort of role with the same vaporous proof.

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This is the sort of thing that fills out a story, even if Solotaroff appears to have gotten a wealth of information from people close to Hernandez about him, including valuable details about him smoking angel dust (you may know it as PCP) and being paranoid, and done good muckraking in dredging up things about Hernandez's family and the Patriots' swap of a former local law enforcement officer for a tech-savvy Brit as their head of security. Writing about Hernandez without writing about his college days would be incomplete and frustrating, too.

But the cavalier treatment of the 2007 shooting, which seems to have been transported to 2009 or 2010 for the sake of narrative, should make any person interested in fairness and accuracy skeptical about the whole article. If Solotaroff and Rolling Stone cut corners with unimportant details, what is there to indicate they didn't do the same with the important ones?

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Andy Hutchins is Alligator Army's managing editor. Follow Alligator Army on Twitter and Facebook.

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