Did Football Drive Aaron Hernandez to Murder?

The question that football fans need to ask — and the NFL needs to answer.

Here’s a question that nobody’s going to like, but that we should probably try to get answered at some point: Did football drive Aaron Hernandez to murder?

Let’s stipulate a couple of things before we delve too deeply into the question: First, the (now-former) Patriots tight end faces charges, but he hasn’t been convicted of anything yet. Second, there are lots and lots and lots of football players — high school, college, pro — who deliver and take big hits on the field and never show the slightest propensity for violence off the field.

But it’s also impossible not to notice that the NFL seems to be piling up bodies — and near-misses — at a seemingly high rate. Lost in the hubub over Hernandez this week has been the fact that the Cleveland Browns released linebacker Ausar Walcott after he was charged with attempted murder — this after punching a man in New Jersey. And who can forget last season, when the Chiefs’ Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend — the mother of his child — then committed suicide? And that’s just the worst of the worst: Check out this San Diego newspaper database of NFL arrests and see how often the terms “battery” and “assault” pop up, just in the last year or two.

It’s also impossible not to notice that these incidents take place in the shadow of a larger wave of violence — in recent years, former NFL players Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, Andre Waters and Ray Easterling have all killed themselves. Apart from their NFL service, those men had one thing in common: chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

CTE — as you’ve hopefully heard by now, if you’re a football fan — is a horrific disease: Basically, parts of the brain shrivel up and degenerate. Victims show symptoms of dementia, “such as memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression.” There seems to be one identifiable risk factor for CTE: If you take repeated blows to the head — like, say, a football or hockey player — your chances of life-altering brain damage are considerably higher.

And again, here is how CTE manifests itself:

The typical symptoms of CTE can be directly connected to the specific areas of the brain that are injured during the progression of disease. Based on these symptoms it is clear that there is damage to the hippocampal-septo-hypothalamic-mesencephalic circuitry (Papez circuit) also known as the emotional or visceral brain. Damage to these areas correlate to the behavioral symptoms of emotional liability, aggression, and violence.

This is, frankly, a mess for the NFL. The league has cracked down in recent years on the kinds of big hits that used to be its bread and butter while putting in new protocols to keep concussed players from returning to action too soon. Essentially, the league is trying to have its violence cake and eat it too. And right here in Philadelphia, the league is fighting a class-action suit by former players who say they were never warned of the potential long-term health effects of the game.

But the focus so far has been on those retired players and what the accumulation of hits does to their health over years and decades. There’s not been as much attention paid to how all those hits are affecting players who are still in the game. How soon, exactly, does that “aggression and violence” manifest itself? We don’t really know: CTE is just beginning to be understood.

Which means we don’t know the answer to a very simple question: Are Aaron Hernandez, Ausar Walcott, and Jovan Belcher allegedly violent men who happen to be football players? Or are they allegedly violent men because they are football players?

I don’t want to raise this question irresponsibly, so let’s acknowledge, loudly: These cases may have nothing to do with football. The NFL is stocked with young men — always a relatively high-violence group — many of whom come from poor neighborhoods where violence was more prevalent. Maybe the league is simply reflecting the pathologies of the culture at large. If that’s the answer, we should be prepared to accept it.

But we — journalists, fans, everybody — should be persistent in pressing the question of the link between CTE and violent behavior. So far, football fans have largely ignored the emerging epidemic because they believe that players know the risks and choose to take them. It’ll be different, though, if it can be demonstrated that football spreads violence beyond the field and beyond its players. We let individuals smoke even though it damages their health, but we’ve refashioned society entirely to end the scourge of secondhand smoke. If football makes all of us a little less safe, the game may not be worth it.

  • Lovin George

    but dude…..aaron hernandez is a gang member, and this wasn’t the first time he had shot one of his friends. it wasn’t football that did this to him

  • Billy

    After reading the article, it seems like you have never played football. I played for 20 years and the I do not have a problem with violence. But I did experience severe depression and emptiness the first year when I was done playing. When you play as long as some of these guys especially on the NFL level, there is nothing that replace the rush of playing on tv in front of all of the fans and the locker room relationships that you have with teammates. All of my best friends are all old teammates I had throughout my career. To blame football for Junior Seau’s actions is ridiculous. The only reason why the NFL is getting bad attention is because the people who get into trouble are celebrities and that makes a good story. This same situations happen everyday in different parts of the country but they only make local news. There is a reason why you wrote an article about this and no one in the mainstream media did.

    • Joel Mathis

      I played four years in junior high and high school—not the level of experience you had, certainly, but enough to A) enjoy it and B) get my bell rung a couple of times.

      I agree that if Aaron Hernandez weren’t in the NFL, people wouldn’t be paying attention to the story. But that doesn’t change three things:

      • We increasingly know that contact sports like football puts participants at risk for CTE.

      • CTE causes depression, aggression, and violence in the people it afflicts.

      • We don’t know how soon those symptoms manifest.

      I’m pretty explicit that this is an open question, one I don’t have the answer to. Are you saying we shouldn’t try to get it answered? If not, why not?

      • Chef Lucky

        If Hernandez were not in the NFL he probably would be Dead or already Incarcerated. Football doesn’t turn Law Abiding Citizens into Killers. That is a serious reach.

      • Rafacarr

        Wait a minute, u played football too? Maybe u also got CTE and the silly excuses u made for Aaron are not entirelly your fault.

  • Guest

    I think a brain injury as the result from playing footbball will be his defense strategy and honestly i think he will not get convicted on murder one if that strategy is put in play. I must state though its my opinion that who we see in those handcuffs and standing before the judge is the real hernandez through and through.

  • mokicat2

    God forbid anybody be held accountable for their actions.

  • Chef Lucky

    WOW! Hope you didn”t pull a muscle with that REACH! Hernandez is a guy on trial who happens to play Football. We really need to start making individuals accountable for their actions instead of playing Amatuer Psychologist everytime someone does something unthinkable. Football didn’t make Aaron Hernandez”allegedly”shoot someone.That was already in him! He bought his”Demons”with Him to The Univ Of Florida and The NFL. He was given an opportunity to rise above his circumstances and instead CHOSE not to! Place the blame where it belongs:At The Feet Of The INDIVIDUAL!

    • Joel Mathis

      I believe in individual responsibilty, Lucky. But there’s evidence that playing football literally changes the brain chemistry of the people play it. That’ science, not ideology. If it’s the case that football really does change players’ brains and make them more violent, what should we do about it? Tell them to suck it up?

      • Chef Lucky

        Alan Page played Football and became a Supreme Court Justice. Was THAT a result of playing Football or the individual? For every Hernandez there are a Plenty of guys who DON’T exhibit the sociopathic tendencies that he did. Too blame this on Football is asinine in the face of the same behavior that exists among those who have NEVER played the game.

        • Joel Mathis

          Want to stack up the number of NFL veterans who ended up in jail versus the number who ended up on the Supreme Court? Your exceptions don’t disprove the rule.

          • Chef Lucky

            How about we stack up the number of Gang Members who play Football vs The Number of Football Players who join Gangs? What an individual brings with him in terms of baggage cannot be blamed on the sport. Hernandez is a 23 year old Football Player who came to the Game with a History Of Violence. The league gave him a 40 million dollar opportunity to put his past behind him,he chose to use it as an opportunity to become an even Bigger Criminal. THAT is on Hernandez and Hernadez ALONE!

          • Joel Mathis

            So Lucky: Do you have any concerns about CTE and how it affects the brains and lives of players/ex-players, or is that a non-issue to you?

          • Chef Lucky

            It is not a Non Issue,but when it is used as an excuse for a 23 year old Gang Member,who wanted to further his “Street Cred”by committing a Gangland Style Execution,then I tend to get a little pissed. There are rmany applicable examples you could have used to make your point regarding CTE,THIS,however was not it. Citing the Hernandez Case as an example cheapens the point you’re trying to make.

      • Scott Sievewright

        Joel,

        Can’t
        agree with you enough. Science is ‘mostly’ non-partisan, but often rejected
        because of partisanship and ideology. Before I read your article, this question
        of CTE and Hernandez’ violent behavior being linked did cross my mind. As a
        former boxer and now student of neurology, the consequences of TBI and even sub
        concussive blows to the head are quite alarming to me. Of course while
        correlation does not equal causation, we must really try hard to answer your
        question. Brain damage can definitely cause behavioral changes. Head trauma can
        definitely cause brain damage. Attributing football to the crimes of Hernandez
        might be a stretch but I believe that future research may just indeed answer
        your question with a YES!

  • Dick_Wolf

    Aaron Hernandez was associated with gangs since he was a child. He’s an alleged murderer who is only different from whatever murders take place today in Chester or North Philly BECAUSE he is a celebrity.

  • Iron Mike

    “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”
    ― Ronald Reagan

    • Joel Mathis

      Reagan’d!

      This, of course, means nothing, as I’m not blaming society. If somebody suffers from actual, diagnosable brain damage, that’s simply a scientific fact, not liberal wishy-washyness. And if that fact has some bearing on their behavior, we have a duty to examine the circumstances.

      Put it this way: CTE basically causes the symptoms of dementia years, decades before they show up in the population at large. Would you want the Alzheimer’s version of Reagan with his hand on the nuclear trigger? Would you trust his “accountability” in such matters if he couldn’t even recognize his children? That’s the kind of thing we’re talking about here.

  • Rafacarr

    A big percentage of NFL players are thugs. They were raised in hoods and they were violent prior to become professional well payed athletes. Playing football didnt cause their thuggery. If something, it helped them because a lot of them are living a good life thanks to the sport, where if it was t for it they’d be dead or in prison, a lot of them.

  • Ken3580

    I think the question posed by this article is exceedingly stupid. It’s evil in the human heart that makes people do evil things and NOT external influences such as football.

  • edmund roche

    these scum bags are just plain bad