Aaron Hernandez and Tim Tebow walked into a bar, and, six years later, the reporting and conjecture drawn from that night is a joke. I was trying so very, very hard to let the long pieces I have written about Hernandez's alleged crime and the allegedly toxic culture that produced him serve as our last words about Hernandez until at least the weekend.
But just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
They, in this case, are The Wall Street Journal and the Orlando Sentinel, among others, who have unearthed a 2007 police report about an incident at The Swamp — the restaurant, not Ben Hill Griffin Stadium — in which Hernandez allegedly punched an employee in the head. We mentioned the Journal's report, which is bylined by Rachel Bachman, in Tuesday's Chomping at Bits, and it has the headline "Hernandez Saw Trouble at Florida," with a subheading mentioning police recommending a charge of felony battery; the Sentinel story is bylined by Iliana Limón Romero, and runs under this headline "Tim Tebow tried to break up Aaron Hernandez violent bar fight in 2007."
Already, as a seasoned consumer of news, without reading either article, I would be skeptical of that second headline, which puts Tim Tebow first for no reason but naked search engine pandering, and makes sure to get "Aaron Hernandez violent bar fight" in there as a phrase. Even if this story were germane to anything about Hernandez's current situation, framing Tebow as the main actor seems to me to be a shameful attempt to draw as much traffic as possible with a sensational headline that the facts barely support.
But let's examine the facts, instead of jumping to a conclusion.
Those facts, according to both stories: Either on April 28 (according to Limón Romero) or May 4 (according to Bachman), 2007, Hernandez was served and consumed two drinks at The Swamp. Bachman writes that Hernandez was delivered a bill, but refused to pay, after which he and employee Michael Taphorn began a "verbal altercation" that included Hernandez calling over a witness to intervene and ended with Taphorn asking Hernandez to leave the bar and escorting him out; Limón Romero writes that Hernandez refused to pay, then "got into a fight with a bouncer at the bar."
Bachman continues the story with Hernandez and Taphorn continuing their altercation outside, with Hernandez alleging that Taphorn "got in my face." Then, as Taphorn turned to walk away, Hernandez punched him in the side of the head. While Taphorn would complain of hearing loss at the scene, he refused medical treatment; the day after, doctors diagnosed him with a ruptured eardrum.
Limón Romero continues her story with the same details about Hernandez saying Taphorn got in his face, Hernandez punching Taphorn in the side of the head, Taphorn declining medical treatment, and the ruptured eardrum, but omits the "verbal altercation" and describes a "fight" without mentioning whether it took place inside or outside the establishment. She also notes that officers could not find Hernandez immediately, and instead interviewed Tebow and another witness, Shaun Young, and that Tebow told officers that he saw and tried to resolve the dispute, urged Hernandez to leave peacefully, and tried to make arrangements to cover the bill.
Limón Romero also notes that an officer who did not interview the witnesses on the scene found Hernandez hours later, interviewed him with Tebow present, and found both that he was "very polite and professional" and had no signs of intoxication. Her report adds that Hernandez and Tebow contacted Urban Meyer prior to speaking with the officer.
Bachman quotes the police report as saying Taphorn's ruptured eardrum led officers to recommend a felony battery charge against Hernandez, but also writes that state attorney Bill Cervone told her Florida requires a high standard of evidence to prosecute felony battery cases, including testimony from the victim.
Limón Romero reports that the investigating officer in the case contacted Hernandez's attorney, Huntley Johnson, to inform him that he would not press charges in regard to alcohol being served to minors, but would note it in the report for the benefit of Florida's coaches.
That last bit about alcohol being served to minors is important because, obviously, both Hernandez, who enrolled at the University of Florida in the Spring 2007 semester, and Tebow, who had been at Florida since Spring 2006, were under 21 in 2007: Hernandez was 17 at the time, and Tebow was 19. The Swamp is usually open to all ages, as it is both a bar and a restaurant, and rarely enforces 18-and-over, much less 21-and-over rules that are used when it is busy; because I was also 17 in 2007, and ate at The Swamp that fall, I can say from personal experience that it's unlikely that Hernandez would not have been allowed in The Swamp then, and it's unfathomable that Tebow would not have been allowed in.
Additionally, the City of Gainesville has long sought to curb underage drinking, as this 2008 Gainesville Sun article, which quotes The Swamp owner Ron DeFilippo, notes, and an ordinance was passed to regulate the admission of underage patrons to establishments that serve alcohol in April 2009; that ordinance led to The Swamp facing penalties for violating those regulations by the summer of 2009. One current manager of The Swamp, Danny Zeenberg, told Bachman that the restaurant does not serve underage customers.
This story is, I think, interesting for a few reasons: It establishes that Hernandez did something violent, by his own admission, in 2007; it shines a light on what does and does not constitute enough evidence to prosecute charges in felony battery cases in Florida; it shows that incidents like this, especially those involving juveniles, can be difficult to report on, considering that we had two different and (minimally) conflicting reports — the dates being different seems very strange to me — that did not surface for more than six years in this case.
I use had there because the Journal has since changed its story: Now, it's headlined "Tebow Tried to Intervene in Hernandez Bar Fight," has the correct April 28 date, and has added supplementary details about Tebow's involvement.
But the most important thing about this story is how, incredibly, Tim Tebow trying to break up a bar fight has become the core of the story, despite only one primary report even mentioning Tebow at first, and noting that he was unsuccesful in his efforts. I've written here before on how Tebow warps coverage, but there are only a few better examples of this than this one: The Sentinel believed that its best headline for a report that builds on an already fascinating and massive story on a major NFL star accused of murder was one that featured Tebow first — and it was absolutely right, given the big-time links it has generated, and the way in which it has shaped an edit of a previous report that scooped it.
There are also details in the police report not included in the Journal and Sentinel reports. That police report, obtained by Alligator Army, states that Taphorn, Tebow, and Young all said Hernandez ran a block north on NW 17th Street, the north-south road that runs along the west side of the block The Swamp is located; that Taphorn told an officer that Hernandez ran around the corner, and that Tebow followed him; that Tebow and Young said that Taphorn appeared to be behaving irrationally; that the investigating officer tried to follow up on who provided Hernandez with alcoholic drinks; that a sworn complaint for felony battery was submitted; and that Taphorn, more than two weeks after the incident, told the investigating officer that he had been "contacted by legal staff and coaches with UF," and was working on an agreement with them, and may request that the charges be dropped.
If we're all going to make a story about Aaron Hernandez a story about Tim Tebow, though, this is the most interesting detail of the entire report, from the supplementary report written by the officer who interviewed Tebow:
Tebow was concerned that his name would get out to the media as being involved in the incident. I assured him that we would not contact the media, and that he was being listed in the report as a witness only.
The cops not contacting the media sounds like protectionism, but that's a red herring: There's just no good reason for cops to talk to the media about a juvenile being investigated, as that juvenile has privacy rights. Tebow being concerned that his name would get out to media as being involved in the incident, though, seems like the concern of a famous person, especially because this happened prior to Tebow becoming Florida's full-time starting quarterback.
Then again, given today's reports, Tebow's concerns seem mostly to be prescient.
Andy Hutchins writes for Deadspin and is Alligator Army's managing editor. Follow Alligator Army on Twitter and Facebook.