We are a long way from knowing the complete set of circumstances that led to Aaron Hernandez being arrested and charged in the murder of Odin Lloyd. Hernandez will have his day in court. But although it has no legal impact, the New England Patriots' stunningly quick release of their star tight end was at the least very telling.
When I was the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, we found ourselves in a similar situation.
It was a surreal moment: Standing on the podium after Super Bowl XXXV in January 2001, watching Ray Lewis hoist the Lombardi Trophy. It was almost exactly one year earlier, following an altercation at a Buckhead nightclub just outside Atlanta, that Ray was jailed, accused and indicted on two counts of murder. The sequence of events involving Ray has been well chronicled, but it is important to note that over the course of the next four months, Ray would go to trial and have all counts dropped as the prosecution was unable to prove any culpability on his behalf.
I have no intentions of rehashing the details of this case any further or making any kind of justification for Ray's right to continue as a member of the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens. The facts are available for any individual who is interested in assessing the truth.
What is worth rehashing is the sequence of events that had to be addressed by the entire Ravens organization, and how that set of circumstances became such a tangible part of our journey to winning the Super Bowl the next season. The circumstances surrounding this situation might be the ultimate case study in organizational crisis management.
When I received the phone call notifying me that Ray had been arrested and charged with two counts of murder, it became painfully clear that we were going to enter new territory in regard to crisis management. There was no one to call, no manual to consult. In response to these events, owner Art Modell, team president David Modell, VP/PR director Kevin Byrne and I all met that next morning to form a course of action that would guide our organization's handling of this situation.
There are three perspectives that must be maintained in handling any crisis: 1) dealing with the crisis itself; 2) dealing with the effects on the organization: 3) dealing with the ensuing media and its effect on the first two concerns.
First, we needed to determine what Ray's culpability was and what our ability to support him would be. Individually and collectively, we had a great deal of confidence in Ray as a person and could not believe he was capable of the accusations leveled toward him. Art Modell was able to assist Ray in securing Ed Garland, a prominent lawyer in Atlanta, to act as his counsel. Once Mr. Garland was able to meet with Ray and assess the situation, he too became convinced that Ray was innocent. From that point, there was very little we could do in regard to the judicial process other than provide all the moral support for Ray that we could.
Next, we turned our attention to the effect this might have on the organization and team. Although it sounds quite mercenary, our focus had to turn to the possibility that we might have to go into the ensuing season without our best player. From an organizational standpoint, it put us in a very difficult position. If we decided to pursue a top-flight linebacker in free agency, two things could have happened: 1) It would have appeared that we did not truly believe Ray and were abandoning him at his time of need; 2) if we had expended the type of finances necessary to secure a top linebacker, and our faith in Ray was borne out and he did return for the season, we would have spent a huge amount of money on a backup. By the same token, if we did not have a contingency plan in place, we could be left very vulnerable should the situation not allow Ray to return. We decided to keep an eye on the existing linebacker market, but do nothing to actively pursue one until we had a better idea of what might happen. Although this would mean passing on some potential replacements, we felt it was our only prudent course of action. In addition to these concerns, we needed to address the atmosphere that would emerge around the organization -- and ultimately, around Ray -- as events unfolded.
Simultaneously, while these two actions were taking place, we needed to develop a very specific and detailed plan for dealing with the media during this difficult time. This step needed to be undertaken -- not only to maintain a positive image for the organization, but also to minimize any distractions and the negative effects this type of exposure would bring. Keep in mind that while there needs to be timely and informative internal communication, there must be cautious and limited external communication. Due to the sensitive nature of the issues involved, we determined the organization would be best served having a single voice with a single message. This single-voice approach is vital because the media will approach as many different sources as possible. The primary goal of the media in such a situation is often to get whatever conflicting opinions or information they can in order to expand the story. For the Ravens organization, it was deemed appropriate that the single voice would be mine.
In dealing with the extensive national media coverage, we tried to keep three perspectives in mind when formulating a response: fast is better than slow, slow is better than wrong, and proactive is better than reactive.
Once Ray was released on bail, he was recused by court order to remain in Baltimore while preparing for the trial. We arranged a news conference to "set the rules" for the ensuing months. The amassed media in our team room at our training facility was the most assembled bunch in the brief five-year history of the franchise. After Ray made a short statement reaffirming his innocence, I outlined the parameters we would work under and delivered our single message. Throughout the ordeal, we made certain to reiterate three main points of our message. First, we were sympathetic to the families involved in the incident and respectful of the loss of life. Second, we continued to reaffirm our faith in Ray. And finally -- the most difficult of the three -- we reaffirmed our faith in the judicial process.
We needed to create a safe harbor of sorts for Ray to come and work out and get away from the pressures of the situation. We also needed to create a buffer for the organization in order to continue preparations for free agency, the draft and the ensuing season. To this end, we established the facility as off-limits to the media in regard to Ray (or any other player) concerning any of the issues involving the trial. Of course, we were all available to discuss regular Ravens business. I must say that the media acted very responsibly in this matter and respected our request to avoid Ray's trial.
One of our major concerns was that the trial might linger into the beginning of training camp and maybe into the season itself. Fortunately, Georgia law provided very specific rules governing the rights to a quick and speedy trial. When the trial began in early April, it became increasingly clear with each witness that Ray was not involved in the killings and had actually tried to prevent the altercation altogether.
After all charges were dropped, Ray pled guilty to an ancillary charge of misdemeanor obstruction of justice. We were assured that this removed any grounds for suspension by the league. Earlier that year, the league had suspended two players -- Jumbo Elliott and Matt O'Dwyer -- after they pleaded guilty to assault charges following a bar melee. Ray's violation of the law did not involve a physical assault on anyone.
When Ray returned to Baltimore, we held a final press conference. We invited the national press, most of whom came. Ray made a statement and answered questions. ESPN, CNNSI and Court TV carried the press conference live. For us, this conference ended the event. It was important to try and bring some finality to the issue for both the organization and Ray, even though we knew the media would carry this story for the rest of the year.
We began training camp with the same attitude. Because we felt this issue was behind us, we did not engage in any dialogue concerning it. From the day after Super Bowl XXXIV (when the incident in Buckhead took place) to the beginning of training camp, not a single day went by that the organization did not have to deal with some issue concerning the tragic deaths and their consequences.
As the Hernandez situation reiterates, this is an unfortunate -- but very rare -- possibility for all professional sports organizations in this country. Every team would be well served in familiarizing itself with such unfortunate events, if for no other reason than to be prepared for any form of extreme crisis management.
The Patriots obviously decided to forego all of this by quickly releasing Hernandez soon after his arrest. As I stated before, this speaks volumes about the organization's faith (or lack thereof) in his overall innocence.
Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick