Like many people who aren’t big into sports, I had no idea who Aaron Hernandez was before watching the new Netflix docuseries, The Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, surrounding his now infamous life. I had grown up going to Ravens games with my dad, mostly excited by how enthusiastic he got and the stadium full of screaming fans. I barely understood the game, knowing only that the team I was cheering for were the ones in purple. Names like Ray Rice and Joe Flacco were present in my consciousness, though I had no idea what made them good or bad. The main event of every game, however, was undoubtedly Ray Lewis, the Pro Football Hall of Famer who spent his entire career with the team. Even as a nine-year-old, I felt the palpable energy that Lewis brought into the stadium every time he did his signature dance and war cry to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre.” In fact, he was what I looked forward to most at the beginning of every game, which I don’t think would surprise anyone who grew up going to those same games. Not until Ray Rice was kicked off the team in 2014 for punching his wife in an elevator, years after I’d stopped going to games, did I really realize that NFL players were fallible people, and could even commit horrible acts. Some point soon after that, I read that even Lewis, the man who had exuded cool and fun throughout my childhood, had had a possible dark side. In 2000, Lewis had pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, sentenced to 12 months probation, and fined $250,000 by the NFL in regards to the murders of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar. Despite Baker’s blood being found in Lewis’s limousine and Lewis admitting to having lied to the police, Lewis was never charged with the murders and the case has gone, technically speaking, unsolved.
There was more to that case than I can describe here, but you might be wondering, why bring up Ray Lewis or Ray Rice at all when talking about a docuseries about Aaron Hernandez? Firstly, one of the most important things that this series covers when talking about possible causes for Hernandez’s actions and eventual suicide is CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injury, which speaks for itself in terms of its connection to football. The first symptoms of this disease are as harmless-sounding as headaches and a loss of attention. Quickly though, symptoms can jump to aggressive tendencies, memory loss, executive dysfunction, paranoia, and suicidal thoughts. According to the New York Times, a study that examined the brains of 111 NFL players found that all but one of the brains had signs of CTE, though current estimates of the pervasiveness of the disease range from 10% to 30% or more of NFL players suffering from damage. This leads me back to why I mentioned Ray Rice. Rice demonstrates an overall trend in the NFL of domestic violence being the leading cause of player arrests, which differs from the overall male population in the US. Taking into account the trend of degenerative brain disease that causes impulsivity and aggression in both football players and domestic abusers, it can be concluded that there is some link between the two––however small.
In the docuseries, Hernandez’s involvement in the murder of Odin Lloyd, his fiancée’s sister’s boyfriend, is pretty clear. His involvement in the murders of Daniel Correia de Abreu and Safiro Furtado is less clear, especially considering his acquittal and the faulty testimony of Alexander Bradley. Though people dispute Bradley’s claims of Hernandez’s paranoia and anger, the series reveals in the last ten minutes of its final episode that Hernandez was suffering from possibly the most progressed case of CTE researchers had seen to date in a player his age. When this was revealed, I had a pretty definitive thought: case closed. To me, considering the prevalence of aggressive tendencies within the NFL in combination with the prevalence of the disease and the impaired judgment it causes, Hernandez’s actions didn’t seem that far-fetched. Clearly for someone to commit murder and not be a psychopath, they’d have to have severely impaired judgement. Hernandez also engaged in frequent marijuana use and hung out with what some people might call “sketchy persons,” despite having an extremely successful career in the NFL and a new family with his fiancée and daughter. One of the problems of the docuseries, however, is that his impaired judgement was not their main focus when telling his story.
Starting from the very beginning, Hernandez’s contested sexuality is brought forward into the narrative of the series. Of course, to give the full picture of his life, the filmmakers had to present every interesting (and possibly relevant) aspect of his story that contributed to his overall character. It’s also clear that questions about his sexuality were not unfounded, considering his adolescent relationship with a man that he appeared to have never told anyone about, including his fiancée. Despite these facts, however, it’s hard for me to say that they are justification enough to make speculations about the sexuality of someone who is no longer living. Additionally, although the idea of Hernandez repressing his sexuality is incredibly sad, no one is really under any obligation to disclose their full sexual history to everyone they know. By that, I mean that Hernandez was under no responsibility to tell people about his experiences with a man. Frankly, I found it a little short-sighted that there was any implication that those experiences negated his possible love for his fiancée in any way. Most importantly though, in regards to the integrity of the docuseries as a whole, his sexuality was simply irrelevant to the murder of Odin Lloyd. The only possible argument is that Lloyd had found evidence of Hernandez’s attraction to men and that he had not taken kindly to that discovery, lacking the judgement to stop himself from committing a horrific act. I don’t believe that enough evidence, however, was presented in the series to justify the inclusion of the whole conversation. Lastly, I believe the docuseries dangerously toed the line of implying that being closeted could lead someone to commit murder, which is damaging in too many ways to count.
Despite feeling distracted by some storytelling choices, I was pretty deeply struck by one idea that the filmmakers presented. When talking about famous NFL scandals, they brought up O.J. Simpson, who they implied was less disturbing in his crimes, on one level, due to his retired status. More directly, they stated that they couldn’t believe that Hernandez had done what he’d done and then gone on to play a normal season of football. This didn’t strike me in its gravity until I remembered Ray Lewis. I remembered how I’d felt shocked and confused that someone I had looked up to had had such a contested past. The more I thought about it, the more I understood what the filmmakers were trying to convey with that small anecdote: the fear that comes with the knowledge that anyone could be capable of anything. This was why I brought up Ray Lewis––not because he committed murder, but because he and Aaron Hernandez both demonstrate this fear, and ultimately morbid curiosity that drives people to create and watch docuseries about seemingly normal people who might have done evil.