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.