It was never so evident of how image-conscious sports leagues can be until Aaron Hernandez, who played tight end for New England, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder on June 26.
In a matter of days, his former team and the NFL exerted their best efforts to wipe away any record of him as a professional football player: He was released and cleared waivers; the league wiped his stats from NFL.com; his former team offered fans who bought his jersey a free exchange for a different one.
One aspect of Hernandez’s time in the NFL that won’t be altered, however, is his virtual self in any Madden game currently available.
Unless EA decides to issue a roster update for Madden NFL 13—that’s probably not happening; they haven't put out one since after the Super Bowl—one can still pass to Hernandez, the man accused of shooting and killing Odin Lloyd.
About a week ago, while taking a break from the unfolding details of Lloyd’s death, I booted up my Madden 12 franchise for the first time since May. Until I started a game, I had forgotten that my star tight end was the same person accused of shooting someone five times in an industrial park.
But were they really the same?
Hernandez’s likeness was leading my team in receptions, but he wasn’t getting investigated. There were no reporters in franchise mode analyzing his draft reports or previous legal history. My Madden version of Hernandez, who plays for the Carolina Panthers, wasn't in Massachusetts being held without bail.
And yet, why did I feel a small jolt of guilt as I kept using him? I considered putting him on the trade block or cutting him and taking the cap hit.
The end result? I did nothing. He helped me win, and I was ambivalent.
I had forgotten that my star tight end in Madden was the same person accused of shooting someone five times in an industrial park. But were they really the same?
Hernandez isn’t the first notable athlete to be charged with serious crimes, and he won't be the last. Quarterback Michael Vick missed two seasons while serving time for his role in a dogfighting ring; does that mean his Madden NFL 2004 player shouldn’t be considered one of the greatest video game athletes ever?
Ray Lewis was found guilty of obstruction of justice in a complicated murder trial involving the deaths of two men in 2000; he was chosen for the cover of Madden 2005. Hell, Mike Tyson was convicted of rape in 1992 and served three years in jail, but does that cross our mind when we play Punch-Out!!?
Professional sports games are different than others, in that the draw comes from being able to play as the teams you follow in real life. It might be easy to realize that a character as cold-blooded as Grand Theft Auto IV‘s Niko Bellic is obviously a bunch of polygons and not an actual person.
It’s different with a sports video game, though. Playing as Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady is a big part of the draw. When the actual basis for a computer-generated superstar is involved in something heinous, does the gamer feel anything?
It will differ from gamer to gamer. The charges looming over Hernandez carry much more weight than have those over other NFL athletes caught with weed or beating someone up in a bar. Using a pixelated Hernandez to get to the Super Bowl doesn’t correlate to an endorsement of murder, obviously. It’s a likeness, not an actual human.
But if it makes a player feel uncomfortable to have Hernandez on his or her team, or even see him on a different team in the game’s league, gamers should feel comfortable editing him out. It seems facetious, but if that’s what it takes to get rid of those conflicted feelings and enjoy the game with a free conscience, go for it.
As for whether Hernandez will even be in this year's edition of Madden, which ships in late August, it's looking unlikely. Madden NFL games ship with a roster of players on the disc, which is almost immediately updated online during the final week of NFL training camp. Hernandez will not appear on the on-disc roster, an EA Sports spokesman told Kotaku, because he was arrested, released by the Patriots, and cleared waivers all before EA Sports' deadline for setting the on-disc roster.
Hernandez will not be included in the pool of unaffiliated free agents either, the spokesman said. Conceivably Hernandez could be added back into the game through an online roster update later, but this would seem highly unlikely given a murder investigation and trial that is sure to last beyond the end of the coming season.
(Additional reporting by Owen Good)