In the corner of a small prison, near a cell that contained only a bed, a cement desk, a toilet and a tiny sink, the body of a former NFL star was being examined for gang tattoos.
It was July, and officers from the Bristol County House of Correction's gang intelligence unit were taking pictures of all the tattoos on Aaron Hernandez’s body. They also interviewed Hernandez about any past gang affiliations, according to the jail’s sheriff, Thomas Hodgson.
Hernandez denied that he had ever been part of a gang, and in the end, officers determined none of Hernandez’s tattoos were gang-related.
The fact that Hernandez is heavily tattooed led to speculation not only that Hernandez was a member of a gang, but that many other NFL players were too.
“And Aaron Hernandez, a kid, an ex-hoodlum,” Geraldo Rivera said on Fox News at the time. “You can take the kid out of the hood; you can’t take the hood out of the kid. He was a Bristol Blood. He was a gang banger.”
In 2007, Rush Limbaugh said an NFL game “all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips.” Following the Hernandez arrest, Limbaugh said, “This guy is a star player in the National Football League, a star player for the New England Patriots. This has the potential to blow the lid open on the NFL and gangs and the whole concept.”
There's no proof Hernandez was in a gang, just like there's no proof of an NFL gang culture. Still, there was a feeling within some front offices that possible gang affiliations of incoming players should be more closely examined.
However, the biggest question is not whether the NFL should examine its incoming players for gang tattoos, but whether such a step would actually prove anything. The answer, clearly, is no.
“What NFL players have is a flirtation with tattoos,” Bill Corson, a retired police officer who spent decades examining tattoos and tagging, told Bleacher Report. “First, I don’t think there’s a gang problem in the NFL. The idea is pretty laughable. Second, what tends to happen, is that if a player does have a gang tattoo, he got it at 17. Maybe he was in a gang, left it, and the tattoo remained.
“When a player goes to the NFL, he leaves any gang past behind. Long behind. But a lot of teens get gang tattoos now and were never in a gang or have gang sympathies. They do it because they think it’s cool.”
As Corson alluded to, even if an NFL team found a gang tattoo on an incoming player, it wouldn't guarantee that he was ever in a gang. It could be a tribute to a slain childhood friend that was in a gang, or something far less meaningful.
In July, CBSSports.com's Bruce Feldman reported the NFL was considering using law enforcement officials to examine players for gang-related tattoos.
Spoke w longtime NFL personnel man who said in wake of AaronHernandez teams may use police experts to check prospects tattoos— Bruce Feldman (@BFeldmanCBS) July 23, 2013
Several team sources have also told Bleacher Report the idea of examining players for gang tattoos remains a possibility. They paint a portrait of a not-so-distant future where a prospect is examined by a former or current police officer for gang tattoos at the NFL Scouting Combine. Pictures would be taken and run through a gang-tattoo database.
“This isn't science fiction,” said one team executive, speaking of that scenario. “This has been discussed by several teams.”
Other executives say the league will never examine players for gang tats and find the whole idea ridiculous. A league official, who requested anonymity, said the NFL has no plans to implement such a program but conceded that individual teams have discussed it.
Looking past the logistical challenges, as well as the unfairness of carrying out such a practice—treating players like they are gang members when they likely aren't—the tattoo culture is immensely complicated.
Does the NFL have a gang-culture problem?
Corson was a longtime officer for the Redmond, Wash., police department and worked with both hardened gang members and suburban graffiti artists to literally and figuratively clean up the streets.
“Gangs thrive because they replace the family unit,” he said. “Gangs give people without an identity an identity. Gangs give the powerless what they think of as power. This is why there are basically no gang members in the NFL. The NFL is their family. Football is their power.”
Meaning, in his view, there is no gang culture in the NFL. There probably never has been, and there probably never will be.
Searching for tattoos on prospects, if it ever happens, would be a tremendous waste of time.