Don't Be So Quick to Label CTE as the Reason for Aaron Hernandez's Behavior

It is irresponsible to use CTE as the ultimate explainer for Aaron Hernandez's indiscretions.

The dots are awfully close to each other, daring you to connect them. Aaron Hernandez had Stage 3 CTE when he committed suicide, after years of inexplicable violent behavior, including at least one murder. It would be simple and easy to blame football for what happened to him.

Dot: The hits to the head gave him brain damage. Dot: The brain damage made him paranoid. Dot: The paranoia made him violent. Dot: The brain damage eventually made him suicidal.

Maybe all the dots really do connect in this case. Maybe just some of them do. But the truth is that we don’t know, and we may never know.

There is so much—so much—we still don’t know about concussions. We know repeated head trauma can ruin a life, but not every brain reacts in the same way. We know there is a direct correlation between football and CTE. And we know that the NFL’s response to this issue, for many years, was to sweep it under the rug—and when that didn’t work, to buy bigger rugs.

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The CTE problem in football is real, and it is enormous. But it has also led to facts-based hysteria. We take what we know about football and CTE, which is obviously significant, and we apply it to every single player, every case of dementia, every football life gone awry. And it’s just not that simple.

On the surface, the Hernandez case may seem like the clearest case of football-related head trauma causing a player to literally and figuratively lose his mind. After all, nobody went crazier than Aaron Hernandez, right?

I would argue the opposite: the extreme nature of Hernandez’s transformation, and the early age when it began, makes his story even foggier than most.

Hernandez’s widow is suing the NFL on behalf of his daughter. The suit claims that the NFL in general and the Patriots specifically were “fully aware of the damage that could be inflicted from repetitive impact injuries and failed to disclose, treat or protect him from the dangers of such damage.”

Maybe Shayanna Jenkins and her daughter Avielle will triumph in court. I’m not going to speculate on that; my colleague Michael McCann is far more qualified and capable of examining the lawsuit than I am.

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I will say this, though: Pinning his suicide on the NFL makes for a good headline. It may be a winning legal strategy. But it’s a hard theory for me to buy in this case.

Aaron Hernandez played 40 games in the NFL. He also played 40 games at the University of Florida, and he played a lot of football before he arrived at Florida. Even if you do pin his suicide on football, can you really isolate his NFL career as the cause?

Hernandez’s behavior started to change radically when he was in high school, almost immediately after his father died. He showed signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, though it was never diagnosed. He hung out with a different crowd. At times he was distant, at others charming, and he seemed to go back and forth with frightening ease. We still don’t know the full extent of his drug use. He was investigated for a double shooting in Florida in 2007—when he was a college freshman. Character concerns caused him to fall in the NFL draft.

Nothing in that last paragraph can be pinned on the NFL. Nothing.

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Of course, the thrust of the lawsuit is that the CTE made Hernandez suicidal, not that it made him a violent criminal. But can you really separate the two that easily? Hernandez took his own life while serving a life sentence for murder. He did it just after being acquitted in another murder trial.

You can come up with a bunch of theories for Hernandez’s suicide that seem sensible on their own. He couldn’t stand to live the life ahead of him. He was filled with regret, though he didn’t show it publicly. Once he was acquitted, there were no battles left to win. He knew that dying while he was appealing his conviction would technically vacate his conviction, possibly shielding his wife and daughter from any civil suits. He had CTE.

Or: We don’t know. Maybe someday we will.

The link between football-related head trauma and CTE is a serious issue. The NFL deserves heavy scrutiny for its actions, both past and present. We should absolutely continue that conversation, but maybe it’s best, for now, to leave Aaron Hernandez out of it.