September 2, 2014

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Mike Bianchi: Aaron Hernandez case putting Florida and Urban Meyer on defensive

ORLANDO, Fla. — Aaron Hernandez may soon be tried for murder.

Unfortunately, his former college football program at the University of Florida is about to be put on trial, too.

By the media, by fans, by the court of public opinion.

This is what happens when one of your former players is a murder suspect, has a possible connection to a double homicide and potentially could go down as the most disgraced athlete of all time.

Reporters are already showing up in Gainesville not to talk about the upcoming season, but to delve and dig into past seasons when Hernandez played for former Florida coach Urban Meyer. Everything Hernandez ever did at Florida will now be scrutinized and analyzed under the intense media microscope.

I knew it Wednesday when I was invited to be a panelist on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” to discuss an investigative report about Hernandez’s possible connection to a 2007 shooting when he was a freshman at Florida. Much of the OTL segment focused on the criminal element in Meyer’s program during his days in Gainesville. Believe me, it will be the first of many such reports emanating from Gainesville during the next few weeks.

There will be questions coming from all angles.

From ESPN.

From Yahoo.

From the Boston police.

From federal investigators.

Urban Meyer wouldn’t talk about Hernandez when asked by a reporter the other day, but soon enough he will be forced to answer questions — tough questions.

Like this one:

Was Meyer aware of the magnitude of the bar fight Hernandez was involved in when he played for the Gators and hit the bar employee so hard that it burst the guy’s ear drum? And, if so, why didn’t he either kick Hernandez off the team or take some significant disciplinary action?

And, more importantly, did Meyer know Hernandez was questioned in a Gainesville shooting back in 2007 and was initially considered a suspect? In fact, according to an ESPN report, there still seems to be a question whether Hernandez remains a suspect in the shooting that left two men wounded, including one who was shot in the back of the head. The case remains unsolved, and Gainesville police categorize the incident as an attempted homicide.

The ESPN report states that “authorities in the Massachusetts murder case against (Hernandez) have reached out to the police in Gainesville in hopes of determining if Hernandez had any role” in the 2007 shooting.

ESPN cited a Gainesville police report obtained Wednesday by the Orlando Sentinel in which an eyewitness initially stated that a man fitting Hernandez’s description was the shooter and also identified former Florida player Reggie Nelson as an accomplice. The police report quotes Randall Cason — the eyewitness who was sitting in the backseat of the car where the two victims were shot.

Cason told police the shooter was a “Hawaiian” or “Hispanic” male who had a large muscular build, stood about 6-foot-3 or 6-4, weighed about 230 or 240 pounds and had a lot of tattoos. Cason said there was also a black male with the shooter, and Cason identified the black male as Nelson, a former Gator who was a rookie with the Jacksonville Jaguars at the time.

Cason later rescinded his identification of Nelson and Hernandez as the people who approached the car and fired shots into the vehicle. Nelson, in an interview with the police, said he had been at the nightclub earlier but denied he was even on the same street as the shooting.

Hernandez, then only 17, wouldn’t answer questions without an attorney present and still, to this day, has not answered questions about the shootings.

The conspiracy theorists on social media are already hypothesizing that Meyer exerted his substantial influence and orchestrated an elaborate cover-up that somehow has enveloped the Gainesville Police Department. Nationally renowned business analyst Andrew Brandt, one of my fellow panelists on “Outside the Lines” on Wednesday, noted that it wouldn’t be the first time a college football program tried to bury a significant crime (see Penn State).

Personally, even though I have found Meyer to be an extremely disingenuous human being, I refuse to believe he would put his entire career on the line to cover up something as serious as a man getting shot in the head. And I certainly don’t believe Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley would allow Meyer to put the university’s entire reputation at stake by covering up such a serious crime.

There’s no doubt Aaron Hernandez is an accused murderer.

But it’s a massive stretch to think Urban Meyer is somehow an accomplice.

Mike Bianchi is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.