New Netflix Doc looks At The Health of NFL Players As They Go Inside The Mind Of Aaron Hernandez
The much-anticipated docu-series on NFL’s Aaron Hernandez finally premiered on Netflix this week. Throughout three episodes, the filmmakers carefully traced Hernandez’s downfall. For those who have thoroughly followed the Hernandez case(s) — the conviction of a Boston-area murder and being heavily implicated in two others — not much new emerged in “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez.” Much has been reported on Hernandez’s abusive father, a troubled relationship with his mother, and his sexuality, and this docu-series does a great job of putting all the pieces together. However, what the filmmakers do best, and we only wish they explored more of, is the NFL’s role in the downfall of Hernandez.
The NFL did not kill Odin Lloyd. Nor did they ‘alledgedly’ kill Boston residents Daniel Jorge Correia de Abreu or Safiro Teixeira Furtado. But the NFL played a role in the downfall of Hernandez, and they have hardly done anything to address it.
First, the docuseries spends time looking at the relationship Hernandez had with his father, Dennis, and how Dennis’s death fundamentally altered Hernandez’s emotional state. Dennis, a former High School and College football player, pushed his son to be great. He was described as abusive — which could be a result of his potential CTE – a brain injury that is associated with repeated blows to the head-related issues, having played football. After Aaron Hernandez committed suicide, his lawyer and his family agreed to donate his brain for research. That research found that Aaron Hernandez showed signs of advanced CTE. Researchers found “substantial damage that undoubtedly took years to develop.”
In a 2017 study, a neuropathologist examined the brains of 111 NFL players — 110 were found to have CTE. It is important to note that family members suspected CTE in those 111 former NFL players, which could explain why 99% were found to have CTE. A year later, another study estimated the rate of CTE among NFL players could be more than 25%. Under scrutiny, the NFL in 2016 publicly acknowledged a connection between football and CTE. They implemented a new policy to enforce concussion protocol, and along with ever, club team owner provided $100 million in support of engineering advancements and medical research in addition to another $100 million for medical and neuroscience research.
However, there are thousands of men who have played football in high school and college and in the NFL who may have CTE related issues, and for decades the NFL allegedly knew and did nothing. The docu-series does an excellent job at highlighting this, while also interviewing players who cut their careers short because they were concerned about CTE. The filmmakers, too, do a great job, perhaps unknowingly, at calling out people who claim that the players knew what they were getting into. First, the NFL didn’t even publicly acknowledge CTE until 2016, and secondly, by just looking at Aaron Hernandez’s story, Aaron was forced into playing football. The film cites his cousin who remembers Aaron wanting to be a cheerleader over a football player, but his father would not have it. Aaron did not choose his football path. His father did.
“Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez” spends a lot of time on his marijuana use and, to a lesser degree, the use of pain medicine in the NFL. Aaron Hernandez, according to the film and those close to him, was an avid weed smoker. He went to grave lengths to obtain marijuana, sometimes it was synthetic. Now, there is a lot of exploring here. First, if marijuana was legal at the time, Hernandez could have crossed the border into Massachusetts and purchased weed from a store, instead of tracking down a dealer. Second, this sheds light on NFL’s painkiller problem. In a recent survey, 52% of retired NFL players reported opioid use during their career, and 71% reported misuse of opioids. Former NFL player Calvin Johnson told ESPN how “team doctors and trainers were giving [opioids] out like candy.”
Multiple lawsuits over the years have shown how bad this problem is. Painkillers have been given out to players relatively freely without warning. They get hooked. Then once they retire the steam of pills dries up. Marijuana has been a useful tool to get people off of addictive painkillers and often used instead of prescribing pain killers. The NFL still does not allow its players to use marijuana as a substitute for pain killers (all other major sports now do). Despite the science and doctors’ recommendations, the NFL continues to be behind the times and in the process are putting their own players’ health at risk. It’s quite dumbfounding.
Hernandez told a former NFL teammate, Mike Pouncey, then with the Dolphins, that if players want painkillers, they will get painkillers. Hernandez’s fiancé is heard on a recorded call saying, “All those drugs they shoot you guys up with, and tell you to go out there and play. ‘Play through your pain. Go! Go!'” Hernandez responded, “You know what’s crazy? They banned that shit from the league, saying you only could take it if you have a serious injury or something. … Guess who they gave that shit to every fucking game? Me.” Hernandez also tells Jenkins in the series, “My body’s so fucked up, honestly. Just from football, you know what I mean?”
What has and will get the most amount of attention in “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez” is an interview with Aaron Hernandez’s middle school and high school boyfriend. He discusses his and Aaron’s incidence of hiding their sexuality especially from their fathers and their teammates.
However, it is a former NFL offensive tackle, Ryan O’Callaghan, who opens up about his sexuality and him feeling the need to hide it from his teammates, the NFL, and its fans, that is so telling. O’Callaghan, who was also on the New England Patriots, enjoyed the Patriots culture. He felt the team’s focus was on winning and it made it easier for him to stay in the closet. O’Callaghan also suggested that Hernandez was concerned about deterring any suspicion about his sexuality. “I think the whole story about Aaron is really unfortunate because you don’t know what drove him to do these things,” the former offensive lineman declares. “You know, if he was able to be himself and have some of these negative things not in his life, what kind of difference would that have made?”
While watching the docu-series, I kept wondering whether or not the NFL is doing enough to make coming out of the closet more acceptable? I am left thinking no, however, thanks to people like O’Callaghan, who claims that there are a bunch of closest current players that the NFL is not doing enough, yet that might change. Would Aaron Hernandez be driven to kill if he was accepted for who he was? No one will know. Hopefully soon we will see an open NFL all start player will be looked at as just an NFL player and not as the gay NFL player.
Follow the Money
Lastly, throughout the docu-series, the filmmakers call out the owners by discussing the amount of money that they make off the game and how they prioritize money over the player’s health and safety. It was clear from his high school days and then again in college that Aaron Hernandez was not healthy (and all teams first passed on him), and yet he still got drafted to the NFL. It was also clear that the Patriots were aware that Hernandez was not well. However, they still gave him a contract extension. The film points out he got that contract extraction just after he allegedly killed two people. Yes, they probably didn’t know that, but they saw the signs. Hernandez wanted to leave New England. He tried to get away from his past, much like when he chose Florida over UConn. However, the Patriots wanted to win, and they felt Aaron was part of their ticket and decided not to listen to him. They ignored his health.
Patriots owner Bob Kraft testified in the Hernandez trial for the murder of Odin Lloyd. He said, “I understood there was an incident that had transpired, and I wanted to know whether he was involved and if he was — any player that comes into our team I consider part of our extended family, and I wanted to get him help,” Kraft said of Hernandez. “He said he was not involved, that he was innocent, and that he hoped that the time of the murder incident came out because I believe he said he was in a club.”
Yet, knowing this, Kraft still offered him more money, didn’t look into these allegations, and allowed him to play. It is no wonder that 90-minutes after Hernandez was arrested that the Patriots fired him. Just 90-minutes. They knew more than they led on.
Aaron Hernandez is not just a victim here, and the NFL isn’t the only villain. Hernandez was a bad guy who lacked empathy. He jokingly asked his agent on a phone call from prison “Hey can you get me a Smith & Wesson deal?” That’s not something someone who has remorse would say. It is not something someone in their right mind would say. Hernandez was a bad guy, but “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez” lays out that maybe he wasn’t born that way, and in many ways, we all should take some blame for the person Aaron Hernandez became. We value entertainment and money over someone’s health. We create a toxic culture where people live in fear that their truth may come out. And sadly, we all know this, and we still are going to watch the Super Bowl where those at the top make all the money, and we don’t question what the players are going through because we seem not to give a fuck.