Did CTE drive Aaron Hernandez to murder?

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Source: Ted Fitzgerald / EPA / Redux

From the start of his 2013 trial for murder to his death by suicide earlier this year, one question has loomed silently in the background of Aaron Hernandez’s troubled life: were brain injuries to blame for his increasingly violent and erratic behavior?

His early life was relatively calm. While Hernandez was a widely-liked and respected football player from his early teenage years, he had no signs of criminal behavior or anger problems growing up. By the time he was 17, however, something had started to change. He had his first brush with the law for a violent assault in a bar, and he became embroiled in a lifestyle that led him to be suspected of shooting two men outside a Florida nightclub.

The further Hernandez’s star rose in football, the further he seemed to plummet in his private life, up until he was arrested and charged with the murder of his friend Odin Lloyd in 2013. All the while, Aaron Hernandez had a devastating disease growing in his brain – a disease known for causing troubles with anger and the mood control.

The infamous NFL tight-end had one of the most severe cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy ever seen for someone of Aaron Hernandez’s age, according to a new lawsuit filed by his attorney, Jose Baez.


Dr. Ann McKee, the director of the CTE Center at Boston University where Hernandez’s brain was examined, says the football player had stage 3 CTE, which can cause violent mood swings, depression, and cognitive issues. According to McKee and Baez, the damage was similar to that typically found in former players over the age of 60.

At the time of his trial and incarceration, few considered the possibility that he may be living with severe brain trauma. However, his sudden suicide made many start to see similarities between his volatile life and those of other famous athletes who took their lives while suffering from CTE.

Source: Jeffrey Beall / Wikimedia Commons

Looking back, Baez says there were many signs that Hernandez was living with CTE – including memory loss, impulsive behavior, and unwarranted aggression –  but they were dismissed or overlooked.

“When hindsight is 20-20, you look back and there are things you might have noticed,” he said. “But you don’t know.”

The lawsuit filed by the Baez says the league and the New England Patriots knew of the dangers of brain injuries and failed to protect their players’ safety.

“Defendants were fully aware of the dangers of exposing NFL players, such as Aaron, to repeated traumatic head impacts,” the lawsuit said. “Yet, defendants concealed and misrepresented the risks of repeated traumatic head impacts.”

While this is likely true to some extent, the severity of Hernandez’s case of CTE suggests he was enduring serious brain trauma from early on in his days playing the sport. The condition is mostly found in former professional athletes, but it is not unheard of for college and even high school athletes to show signs of the earliest signs of CTE.

The discovery of his condition raises new questions about just how culpable a person with severe brain trauma can be for a crime and their behavior. It is well-documented that people in prison are much more likely to show signs of past brain injury and it is known that CTE can cause violence and memory problems.

However, Hernandez’s legal team never brought up the possibility that brain injury could have contributed to his behavior during his trial. He maintained his innocence until his death.

“It’s something I deeply regret,” Baez said.

It is unlikely that we will gain any hard answers from the fact that Hernandez lived with a severe case of CTE. We can’t know what state his brain was in when he committed the murder of his friend, and the role CTE played in the events raises several complicated, murky ethical issues about jailing brain injured people. However, it adds context to our understanding of CTE and how dangerous it can be for athletes while giving the NFL yet another brain-injury related conundrum to deal with.

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