For a league constantly in a tug-of-war between players’ individual rights and the overall viability of the league, last week was a major moment for the NFL. When one of the best players on one of the two or three most popular and visible teams get hit with a felony it’s bad enough. The fact that (now former) Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez was arrested at his home on first-degree murder charges for the death of a gentlemen named Odin Lloyd is yet another uppercut to the NFL’s image. Arguably, the worst yet.

As information dripped out, bit by surprising bit, common sense told us that he was likely to face charges of some sort. Obstruction of justice was the popular thought, not murder. Certainly not murder one. I don’t know if anyone saw that coming. He also faces five other charges, including illegal possession of a firearm. I get the feeling that the initial general consensus was that this might have been slightly overblown, that maybe there was a mistake somehow and Hernandez wasn’t directly involved. This thinking doesn’t come from any loyalty or affection for Hernandez. It’s based on the idea that pro athletes (especially ones who have just signed a five-year, $37 million contract extension less than a year ago) have so much going for them, that only a fool would risk his career engaging in criminal activities of this caliber. No way they are that reckless. No way they are that dumb. We, as fans, think this, full well knowing that athletes get in trouble with the law all the time.

The money and the fame, as we are constantly reminded, do not guarantee anything. When news broke on the morning of June 26th that the Patriots had released him, it got real. That’s when it went from, “who knows what happened, but we’ll find out soon enough,” to “uh-oh, something must have happened.”

The NFL, in both public perception and ratings, has kept up its Teflon Don status for the last several years and its momentum has barely broken stride.

From AdWeek:

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the 101 games televised nationally over the course of the 2012 campaign averaged 16.6 million total viewers.

In the aggregate, the five nets (NBC, CBS, Fox, ESPN and NFL Network) averaged a 10.1 household rating and a 6.1 in the 18-49 demo. Both measures were off four-tenths of a ratings point from the 2011 regular-season averages.

NBC’s Sunday Night Football generated the biggest NFL deliveries, averaging 21.4 million viewers, a 12.8 household rating and an 8.2 in the adults 18-49 demo. The prime-time showcase dipped just 1 percent from 21.5 million viewers in 2011, while the household and demo ratings were similarly consistent (12.9, 8.4).

Even through such terrible moments as last season’s Kasandra Perkins’ tragedy, “the shield” has remained above the fray. Advertisers haven’t left, nor has there been any kind of mass exodus of fans. At least, not yet. At some point common sense says the mainstream public will get to a point of no return on the despicable scale.

There have been 27 NFL players arrested since the Super Bowl; which, lets be honest, is a shockingly high number. The arrests vary from marijuana possession to cheating at a craps table at a Las Vegas casino. Obviously, every situation isn’t as hardcore as Hernandez, and as such, these transgressions are able to fly somewhat under the radar. This could be different, however. Outside of New Englanders and hardcore football fans, Hernandez isn’t famous, at all. But this story transcends sports and he’ll become a celebrity as this case gets more and more national coverage. The details are so sordid, so outrageous, that he’ll become one of the most famous pro athletes in the country in no time flat. The NFL has thrived even in the wake of its bad press, without much backlash about its culture. We’ve talked about concussions and bounties, but not about its culture. This might be the case that brings that discussion to the forefront.

The NFL’s culture is, for all intents and purposes, based on power. There is an inherent cult of physicality that envelopes the NFL. Even with its finesse teams, bravado is served on a plate here. Players love and the fans love it. Fans come back every year to fill up their plates on the naked physicality that defines professional football. We look the other way, mostly, except when storylines, such as Hernandez’s make it impossible to ignore.

The NFL will continue as the top American league as long as it keeps its racial balance (there are a majority of black players, but not black stars), doesn’t raise its regular season beyond the current 16-game format, keeps its quality of play at a level higher than other pro leagues, and keeps crime from dominating the news cycle. What’s happening in New England can’t happen again anytime soon, if not ever. Its seriousness explains why his dismissal from the team happened so quickly.

Last year, Hernandez missed six games, but still finished with a respectable 51 reception for 483 yards and five TDs. He’s a very good, very versatile player, who along with Rob Gronkowski, ushered in a TE renaissance in recent years. These guys were doing things at the position that were unprecedented. With Gronk recovering from back surgery and not expected back by the start of the season, and Wes Welker gone to Denver, Hernandez was primed to be Tom Brady’s No. 1 target. You don’t let your primary receiver go unless you know for a fact that something heavy is coming. When other teams have had star players in trouble, a benefit of doubt kicks in, a standard “we got your back,” if you will. New England has a rep for quickly jettisoning guys who aren’t living up to the team standard, but this… this was different.

When Bristol County (MA) Assistant D.A. Bill McCauley started dropping specifics, the sheen came off and it got legitimately ugly.

From USA Today:

McCauley said Lloyd was killed with five bullets about 3:25 a.m. June 17 in a secluded industrial park roughly a half-mile from Hernandez's home. Two other men, allegedly summoned by Hernandez by text message that night, also were involved in the killing, McCauley said, but their names were not released.

McCauley said the plot to kill Lloyd probably was hatched June 14, when Lloyd and Hernandez went to a Boston nightclub and Hernandez caught Lloyd talking to people Hernandez "had troubles with." Two days later, McCauley said, Hernandez summoned two men from out of state, and together they went to the Dorchester section of Boston to pick up Lloyd at his home.

From there it has gotten progressively worse, with more and more damning evidence surfacing against the former Patriot.

The NFL is not unbeatable. Even though its 2012 ratings were strong, they were down five points from 2011. That might not sound like much, but there’s no doubt that NFL brass is concerned. Those five points can easily turn into 10 points and then, things will be forced to change. The stakes are high here. A few weed arrests here and there aren’t going to make a difference. Sadly, neither are any domestic violence arrests (provided the women aren’t badly injured), but murder is different. A civilized society won’t allow that. The public gets another one of these anytime soon, and the pristine NFL image will suffer potentially irreparable damage.