The Aaron Hernandez Story: Sympathy for the devil?

If you have read my blog before or you’re one of my friends, then you know I’m a die-hard Patriots fan. I have a throw-back Tom Brady jersey that I wear every single Sunday during the season, and I refuse to clean it because of my superstition that they will lose if it goes in the wash. Of course, this is silly, and a representation of the absurdity of being a sports fan. Yet I enjoy the ridiculousness of fandom, and rooting for the Patriots connects me to my hometown in Clinton, Massachusetts. While there is so much I love about sports, especially rooting for New England, it becomes difficult to rectify supporting my team when that love collides with a murderer. Of course, I’m talking about the Aaron Hernandez story.

I once met a sports editor at the Los Angeles Times who informed me of a saying: Sports is the toy store for adults. I’m paraphrasing here, but the sentiment rings true: Sports is not a part of the existential struggle to understand meaning; it won’t help us solve Cancer or help us better comprehend space-time; and I could probably spend my time more wisely by reading a book. That’s just not why I watch sports. I watch sports because it’s an escape. It’s fun. It’s meaningless in a world that demands meaning.

It’s uncomfortable, then, when crime enters into the sports narrative. The new Netflix documentary, Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, brings up very difficult questions for Patriots and football fans and those who wish to live in the toy store: How can we root for the Patriots when a murderer caught a touchdown in the Super Bowl? How culpable is the audience who rooted for Hernandez? And I think the documentary explores these questions with great authority, but I think there is a much more difficult question that goes beyond sports that we have to answer as a society:

How much should we sympathize with the Aaron Hernandez story?

Aaron Hernandez’s Story: Upbringing and Environment

To understand whether or not we should have sympathy for Hernandez, The Netflix documentary asks its viewers to start with his upbringing.

  • Aaron Hernandez’s father was intense, if not abusive. His father was a man’s man, and he appeared to believe strictly in heterosexuality as the “normal” way of life. In fact, there is a story that Hernandez dressed up like a cheerleader, and it sent his father into a rage.
  • Aaron Hernandez was also allegedly bisexual and closeted, and, as the documentary and his friends seemed to showcase, this was something that created incredible tension, if not self-hatred, in his life.
  • Aaron Hernandez was surrounded by bad individuals during high school. This may have been true to some extent, but it doesn’t seem like he ended up hanging with the wrong crowd based on his own environment.

The documentary also clears up a key piece of misinformation: Aaron Hernandez grew up in a safe and middle-class environment, not a gang ridden city.

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Clearly, the documentary wants us to understand some of the environmental factors that could have made Hernandez unhinged. From his closeted sexuality to the looming presence of his father, it was clear Hernandez had challenges growing up.

But when it comes to Odin Lloyd, a man who became the victim of a murder on June 17, 2013, it’s incredibly difficult to believe that Hernandez’s upbringing could be a reason to sympathize with him. When I see the grief of the Lloyd family and the other families of the two men Hernandez allegedly killed in Boston, it’s hard to have even pity for the ex-NFL star. There are many people with rougher and more challenging circumstances who didn’t ended up killing.

On the other hand, there is an element to the Aaron Hernandez story that does make me pause and reflect. I’m interested in whether or not we should have sympathy for Hernandez because of his CTE.

How does CTE fit into the Aaron Hernandez Story?

On a recent Patriots Unfiltered, the podcast hosts were discussing the Aaron Hernandez story, and Paul Perillo, a sports personality who is delightfully snarky, suggested he disliked the Hernandez documentary because it was intentionally trying to get their audience to sympathize with the former tight end. He also seemed disgusted that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) would at all be used to create sympathy in the Hernandez narrative. CTE, which, according to The CTE Center at Boston University, is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma, and it’s been a leading cause of suicides and abnormal behavior in countless athletes.

As someone who has written about concussion for Pacific Standard magazine and interviewed some of the leading experts in concussion research, I found that Paul Perillo was severely underplaying the research associated with CTE and how this could have impacted the Aaron Hernandez story. Usually, I find Perillo very logical, but he seemed to be ignoring the science.

Perillo is by far not the only one to dismiss CTE when trying to understand Hernandez. Jermaine Wiggins, the New England Patriots tight end from their first Super Bowl win, sums it up beautifully in the documentary when he called CTE a total cop out for murder. In fact, Wiggins suggests that all athletes are dealing with similar health struggles, but they don’t go out there and kill people.

This brings me to what I believe to be one of the biggest challenges our society will face as more and more research comes out about the mind and the Aaron Hernandez story: How do we think about crime when we know the mind is broken? I do not believe it is a cop out.

It’s easy to take the hard approach to the Aaron Hernandez story: He killed people. He’s a murderer. He’s scum.

Compare Wiggins’ and Perillo’s comments to a response from my friend, Mike Semanchik, managing attorney & media coordinator for the California Innocence Project:

When Aaron started playing football, CTE was not yet discovered or studied. We now know some of the damage it can do to people and we’ve seen it play out in other football greats. While many will say “no one else has murdered,” I don’t think you can look at it by # of football players with CTE that also commit murder. Murder is a somewhat rare occurrence in society. Should there be anger and resentment towards Aaron? Sure, that’s a typical response. But sympathy should follow until we fully comprehend what we’re putting contact athletes through for our own entertainment.

Mike Semanchik

When you actually look at the hard facts about Hernandez’s brain, the larger picture — and whether or not his story deserves sympathy — it becomes easier to sympathize.

After Hernandez died, his family donated his brain to science. The results of the autopsy were startling: “Aaron Hernandez suffered the most severe case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy ever discovered in a person his age, damage that would have significantly affected his decision-making, judgment and cognition, researchers at Boston University revealed at a medical conference Thursday,” according to the Washington Post.

Out of the all the brains studied by Boston University, Hernandez’s brain was the worst. Repeat, the worst. His frontal lobe was extremely damaged, which is the part of his brain that helps people make decisions and moderate impulses. His brain also had several abnormalities, and it resembled elderly people with severe dementia.

Many of the other brains studied by Boston University arrived there after their owner’s of that brain committed suicide. According to a Men’s Health article, of the brains studied at Boston University, “82 percent suffered from impulsivity, 59 percent with depressive symptoms, 51 percent with explosivity, 41 percent with verbal violence, 34 percent with physical violence, and 33 percent with suicidal ideation, attempts, or completions.”

While there seems to be correlations between CTE and some violent behavior, it’s clear that it’s not an easy decision to make that Hernandez committed murder because of CTE. For instance, in that same Men’s Health article, Dr. James Borchers, M.D., a sports medicine physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said, “Just because Hernandez had CTE doesn’t mean it caused his suicide—nor is there clear-cut evidence that it contributed to the homicide and violence that landed him in jail leading up to it—because all the factors about CTE aren’t yet known.”

But I just can’t shake the idea that Hernandez’s brain resembled someone with dementia. What if the mishaping of his brain was the reason he killed? Maybe it wasn’t that CTE helped him think about murder like a voice whispering in his ear that Odin Lloyd should die. But perhaps the part of his brain stopped working that keeps us from our worst, animalistic instincts.

What is similar to the Aaron Hernandez story?

Take for instance the case of an individual who went into surgery to remove a part of his brain that his medical team believed could stop his violent seizures. Radio Lab, an NPR podcast, covers the story in great detail, and in their story, the man is unnamed, but they call him Kevin.

Of course, there was great risk to Kevin’s brain surgery, but he chose to take this risk because his seizures were so intense, and his life was incredibly difficult. He couldn’t drive. He was hurting himself. It was rough. Before the surgery, Kevin lived a genuine life. He was a hardworking man who loved music, and he had a devoted girlfriend. By all accounts, he lived a basic and rewarding life. He wasn’t engaging in deviant behavior.

But after the surgery, his girlfriend noticed his sexual appetite was increasing, and he seemed different.

Some time after the surgery, federal agents showed up at Kevin’s door and took him away. Basically, after the neurosurgeon removed a part of his brain, Kevin began going down a deeper and deeper down a hole on the internet, and he was clicking on countless different porn sites. He kept looking for dirtier and dirtier stuff, until he landed on something that could send him to prison: child pornography.

Kevin knew he was engaging in deviant behavior, but for whatever reason, he just couldn’t stop. Well, it turned out that the part of his brain that was removed was what helped control his impulses. At trial, his neuroglist came to his defense, and he tried to convince everyone in the room that Kevin could not be held responsible for his actions.

“Now in most of us, those thoughts are kept in check because there are other parts of our brain that sit on top and act like a lid. But in Kevin’s case, the brain surgeon who did that surgery removed part of that filter,” said Kevin’s neurologist.

When you listen to the podcast, you hear how Kevin knew he was doing wrong, wanted to stop, but it was impossible for him to end his behavior or ask for help. So, how much control did Kevin have? This was argued at his trial.

There is an argument that in Kevin’s case free will doesn’t exist, and he is not responsible for his choices, because his brain lacked the capacity to make these choices. (If you want to know more about the science here, then I definitely recommend listening to the Radio Lab episode.) For instance, Robert Sapolsky, professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Stanford University, testified at Kevin’s trial and agruged that Kevin should not be held legally responsible for his actions.

But Sapolsky took it even farther than criminal culpability. He suggested that Kevin’s case had broader implications on the way we should think about crime and decisions.

“I have, like, zero belief in free will at this point, yet at the same time I cannot for a second imagine what the world is supposed to look like with people believing there is no free will.”

Robert Sapolsky

So How Does This All related to Aaron Hernandez’s story?

The more we learn about the brain the harder it will become to understand how responsible someone is for their decisions. We know that when someone develops CTE they have a high likelihood of developing early dementia. Think about someone you know who had dementia. How did they behave? Could they remember your name? Could they remember where they were? What kind of behavior did they exhibit? Would you hold them personal responsible for their actions?

Aaron Hernandez’s brain and those with CTE literally mirror a person’s brain with dementia. Take his brain degeneration, coupled with being forced into playing a violent sport, and you have a deadly neurococktail. If his brain was literally broken, if he was unable to exist within society, if he was unable to make the right decisions, could we have helped him earlier? Could he have stopped playing football earlier? Could we have prevented the murder of Odin Lloyd?

So, Should I Have Sympathy for the Devil?

As a casual sports fan, truthfully, these questions make me uncomfortable, because he took many of those hits to the head for my entertainment. He also committed senseless acts of disgusting violence.

But yet I feel complete sympathy for him. Not because he was closeted or had a tough father — clearly, these were challenges for him — but because he may be a victim of the failure of the speed of science. CTE is not something that can be currently diagnosed while someone is alive. If we had the tools to understand that Hernandez’s brain needed fixing, or the understanding of how broken he was inside, then perhaps we could have helped him.

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