On 15 April, 2015, Aaron Hernandez, once a tight end for the New England Patriots, was found guilty of murdering Odin Lloyd, a semi-professional football player. Two years later, on 19 April, 2017, Hernandez died by suicide in prison, days after being acquitted on most charges in a different, double murder case. The Hernandez story has lived on as a shocking page of the National Football League’s history, understandably so – the New England Patriots, for whom Hernandez still played at the time of 2013 his arrest in the Lloyd case, are considered one of the league’s best ever teams, home to Tom “greatest quarterback of all time” Brady.
Hernandez was 21 years old when he played alongside the Patriots during the 2011 Super Bowl. To put this into perspective, odds of being drafted into an NFL team, even for skilled athletes, are famously microscopic. Playing alongside a team like the Patriots during America’s biggest sporting event of any given year, in your early twenties, is a life-defining event. Before his arrest, Hernandez was a sports superstar by most metrics, having signed a reported $40m, five-year extension contract in 2012.
A new Netflix documentary, Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, takes a closer look at Hernandez’s life and career, and their shocking unravelling. In three one-hour episodes, the series analyses many aspects of Hernandez’s undoing, and – in the words of director Geno McDermott and producer Terry Leonard – “examines the perfect storm of factors leading to the trial, conviction, and death of an athlete who seemingly had it all”.
The documentary is certain to bring attention back to the Hernandez case, just two weeks before the 2020 Super Bowl. It is also likely to reignite conversations about brain injuries and their possible role in Hernandez’s story – as well as that of other NFL players.
Exactly how brain injuries impact behaviour – including violent acts – remains a debated topic nowadays. That conversation arrived back in the public consciousness with renewed intensity around the time of Hernandez’s death. At that time, three letters kept resurfacing in news reports: CTE, which stand for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
Hernandez’s brain was donated and analysed after his death, revealing what researchers have described as extensive injuries. Doctor Ann McKee, the director of Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, told the press in 2017 that Hernandez suffered from stage-three CTE that “we’ve never seen… in our 468 [examine] brains, except for individuals very much older”. According to McKee, Hernandez’s injuries amounted to “substantial damage that undoubtedly took years to develop”.
“Especially in the frontal lobes, which are very important for decision-making, judgment, and cognition, we could see damage to the inner chambers of the brain,” McKee said. “This would be the first case we’ve ever seen of that kind of damage in such a young individual.”
Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez touches on the topic of brain injuries, albeit briefly, and rightfully focuses on many other potential factors in his life (from his sexuality to his reported vision of masculinity). McKee herself qualified her findings in 2017, saying that “while I’m not going to connect the dots with his behaviour or difficulties during life…the frontal lobes – and his were very severely affected – are involved in problem-solving, judgment, impulse control, and social behaviour. The amygdala, which was affected in Aaron Hernandez as well, is involved in emotional regulation, emotional behaviour, fear, and anxiety.” Doctor Munro Cullum, a neuropsychologist, warned in Fortune magazine that “the complexities of human behaviour and the brain from which it derives often defy our attempts to comprehend” and that “we cannot infer that microscopic findings in a brain at autopsy prompted someone to commit a specific act such as murder several years earlier”.
Perhaps the reason why the brain injury debate became such a significant part of the Hernandez narrative is that – paradoxically – it extends beyond the boundaries of his own life. Mike Webster, a former player for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs, became the first former NFL athlete to be diagnosed with CTE after his death in 2002. Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Jovan Belcher, all former professional football players who died by suicide, all showed signs of CTE, according to experts.
The debate about player safety and the potentially devastating effects of brain injuries in former athletes has raged on for almost two decades. It has reached the courts, too: in December 2016, the US Supreme Court cleared the way for a concussion settlement between the NFL and retired players, reportedly worth about $1bn. That amount is expected to last for the next six decades.