By Darragh Nolan
The new Netflix docuseries Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez attempts to shed light on what led the star NFL tight end to be charged with three homicides and receive a life sentence. However, the circumstances surrounding the murder of Hernandez’ friend Odin Lloyd only gets murkier the more one tries to unravel it.
Before all of that, though, was the stardom. Before Killer Inside was the adoration of millions. Before the murder was the $40 million contract. Before life in prison was life in the limelight. Before all of these, Aaron Hernandez was beloved by New England Patriots fans and idolised by the Hispanic community.
So, how could someone who supposedly had it all be driven to brutally killing a close personal friend? Even his childhood friends, his family and his legal representatives struggled to grasp just why a famous football player would turn to such atrocity. “It didn’t make sense”, was a recurring answer from many interviewees throughout the series.
Killer Inside doesn’t so much succeed in understanding the mind of Hernandez as much as it highlights how difficult it is to determine his motive. There were so many contributing factors, any one of which could be used to explain Hernandez’ behaviour.
There was his abusive upbringing, his father’s sudden death when he was just a teen, his unsupportive mother’s actions in the aftermath. Hernandez suffered everything from early brushes with drugs and criminals to sexual assault.
All of that trauma alone is often an explanation for someone committing such a monstrous crime. The great irony for Aaron Hernandez was that the very thing that saved him could have been what saw his life fall apart.
Described throughout the series as a supremely dedicated athlete and an exceptionally hard worker, Hernandez’ dedication to football brought him superstardom. But it also brought him severe brain damage as a result of repeated head trauma.
Retired NFL players’ issues with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, are well documented. The 2015 film Concussion, starring Will Smith, brought wider global attention to the problem. Symptoms include erratic behaviour, paranoia, wild mood swings, violent tendencies, short term memory loss and depression that often leads to suicide.
All of these were characteristic of Aaron Hernandez right up to when he took his own life in 2017. There is no justifying the crime he committed, but perhaps both he and Odin Lloyd would be alive today if not for the state his brain was left in by the rigours of professional football.
It is a truly conflicting notion. The sport of football is a marvel, a game that exemplifies the values of hard work and mental strength. It rewards intelligence and attention to detail. Football is America’s most popular game and in recent years has become a worldwide spectacle.
That all means very little when considering the damage it has done to the lives of so many former players, and when considering the tragedy of Odin Lloyd and his family. And aside from the physical toll football took on Hernandez, it may have been the culture surrounding it that hurt him most of all.
Homophobia in sports is no secret. Testosterone fuelled environments such as these are far from accommodating athletes to comfortably and safely come out. Aaron Hernandez was one of those athletes. The culture he grew up in pressured him into silence and self-hatred. He ought to have felt like he could be open about his sexuality and the person he really was.
Instead, he became consumed by it. And despite being acquitted of two other murder charges in March 2017 and being upbeat about appealing the guilty verdict over Lloyd’s killing, he took his own life just days later.
Killer Inside speculates that the suicide had to do with crude, homophobic remarks made in relation to rumours about his sexuality on a radio show following his acquittal, but, considering his past, the CTE and the reality of facing life in prison, Hernandez’ death is just as hard to explain as Odin Lloyd’s.
Ultimately, no one will ever know why Aaron Hernandez killed his friend. We’ll never know why he took his own life. We’ll never know how things would have turned out if he’d made better decisions or if his life experience had been more positive.
What’s undeniable is that it’s time for change. It’s time to make football a safer sport, so that athletes don’t leave it crippled and suffering from brain damage. It’s time to make all sports safe and supportive for LGBT+ athletes. It’s time for the NFL to evolve.