Hernandez, 27, hung himself in prison this week. The narrative quickly spun to a young man predisposed to hanging with the wrong crowd who paid the ultimate price for his actions. The reality is his brain will be researched — and that will tell a different story.
Shock would hardly be the word to use to describe the suicide of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. At only 27, Hernandez was serving a life sentence for a first-degree murder conviction in 2015 in the shooting death of Odin Lloyd, a friend who was dating the sister of his fiance.
He was found by corrections officers Thursday morning hanging in his jail cell next to three handwritten notes and a bible. His brain will be turned over to a university for study for trauma known as CTE, a chronic condition that affects many NFL players but cannot be diagnosed until after death. Big-name players in recent years whose brains have been dissected and diagnosed postmortem include New York Giants receiver Frank Gifford, Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster and San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau — the latter committed suicide after a round of golf by shooting himself in the chest on his balcony.
“Now that the cause and manner of death have been determined, the brain will be released to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center as Mr. Hernandez’s family wishes,” the statement from the district attorney’s office and police said.
In time, the results will surface that Hernandez suffered the effects of CTE, many of which manifested in his life leading up to its short and tragic end: aggression, depression, anxiety, suicidality, parkinsonism, and, eventually, progressive dementia. By then it will be a footnote, a forgotten postscript.
Though committing murder is the gravest of examples, NFL apologist columnists are unilaterally portraying Hernandez as a kid with a troubled past who never quite found his way even as he reached the zenith of football stardom and personal achievement with a $40 million contract signed with the sport’s winningest franchise and a baby on the way in 2012.
Columns like this from CNN’s Roxanne Jones or this from San Francisco Chronicle’s Ann Killion or this from Fox’s Dr. Keith Ablow — you needn’t bother to read them to get the gist of the league’s talking points bleeding through the narrative: Hernandez was a stellar athlete with personal demons exacerbated by the sudden loss of his father at age 16. His malleable personality eventually sent him deeper and deeper into drug use and bouts of violence propped up by enablers.
Surprisingly, the only one who gives as much as a tacit nod towards CTE (though he is careful not to name it) is Dr. Ablow, who buries the symptoms of Hernandez’s overriding problems in a paragraph of all that may have ailed him, here in italics: “His pumping himself up with the applause of crowds who appreciated and fanned his lack of fear on the gridiron, repeated episodes of head trauma when he was thrown to the ground by defending players (which can cause changes in personality, impulsivity and mood swings) and the addition of a huge dose of narcissism via a $40 million dollar payday, courtesy the New England Patriots.”
Talk about burying/not fully acknowledging the lede.
The argument these columnists, and by extension, the NFL makes, is that thousands of players are able to mitigate the rigors of daily life with head trauma without sticking a gun to one of their friend’s heads and pulling the trigger — the masculine vibe of every-man-is-responsible-for-his-own-actions thing. Indeed, that is the case. …But for former NFL players who have not yet died and been fully diagnosed, living with a damaged brain is some special kind of hell that constantly has to be monitored and kept in check with medications and therapy and even then, things the rest of us take for granted in our 30s and 40s: careers, family life, strong relationships, are often out of focus and out of reach.
Last month, former 49ers wide receiver Dwight Clark, known for his otherworldly catch in the 1982 NFC Championship Game, announced he’d been diagnosed with amyotrophic laterals sclerosis (ALS) in a statement posted on the website of Ed DeBartolo Jr., the former owner of the team.
Clark drew the connection between his playing days and his diagnosis. “I’ve been asked if playing football caused this,” he wrote. “I don’t know for sure. But I certainly suspect it did. And I encourage the NFLPA and the NFL to continue working together in their efforts to make the game of football safer, especially as it relates to head trauma.”
Research suggests that professional football players are four times more likely to develop ALS and three times more likely to die from neurodegenerative diseases like ALS or Alzheimer’s than those in the general population. Bundle CTE in there and we are consistently and constantly learning that playing football at car-crash speeds for a sustained amount of time leads to only a single outcome, and it is not a pleasant one.
Aaron Hernandez is a key component of that story, not the outlier.