Aaron Hernandez just became the most dangerous man in football.
It’s a strange statement, given the former New England Patriots tight end is dead and had spent the last four years of his life not on the field but behind bars for murder. But the revelation Thursday that Hernandez had chronic traumatic encephalopathy when he killed himself will shake the NFL to its core.
As it should.
Hernandez was just 27 when he died, yet an autopsy of his brain showed he had Stage 3 CTE, the second-worst stage of the disease. His brain had also begun to shrink, and there were large holes in a central membrane.
To be clear, this is not normal, as was noted in a lawsuit filed Thursday against the NFL and the Patriots by Hernandez’s fiancée and their young daughter.
“The Boston University neuropathy report also notes that Aaron’s CTE pathology was unusually severe considering his age,” according to the lawsuit.
And that’s a problem the NFL can’t spin or double-talk away.
It was easy to absolve football when it is players in their 60s and 70s whose memories and personalities had disappeared, turning them into people their loved ones barely recognized when they died. There’s no definitive link, the NFL would say, alluding to a host of other environmental and lifestyle factors that might have played a role.
Even when it was Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, taking their lives in their 40s and 50s because their addled brains were already making their lives hell and they knew there was more to come, the NFL managed to tap dance around football’s responsibility. Tragic, but there are still so many unanswered questions, we’ve heard time and time and time again. More research is needed on genetics and mental illness and, well, anything else that might gum up the debate.
The number of former players with those telltale dark spots on their autopsied brains has piled up – 20, then 50, now more than 100 – and still the league insisted on playing dumb.
“There are still many unanswered questions relating to the cause, incidence and prevalence of long-term effects of head trauma such as CTE,” the NFL said in July, when the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study that found CTE in the brains of 110 out of 111 former NFL players.
But a 27 year old? The NFL is going to own that whether it wants to or not.
The NFL spends considerable time and resources every year to reassure worried parents that it’s OK to let their kids play football at the youth level. But the news about Hernandez will only ratchet up the fear, making parents wonder if they’re consigning their kids to a jail cell or the morgue by allowing them to play.
If Hernandez had severe CTE before he was 30, how can you promise me that my kid won’t, too?
“According to the CTE Society, individuals suffering from CTE in Stage III, like Aaron, typically experience symptoms such as memory loss, executive dysfunction, aggression, explosive behavior, loss of concentration, mood swings, depression, apathy and cognitive impairment,” the lawsuit alleged.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league hadn’t seen the lawsuit filed by Hernandez’s family and could not comment.
While the NFL has always known this day was coming, it’s done everything it can to put it off. Casting doubt on the science and stalling the research.
But the league has had it wrong all along. Knowledge is power, and finding answers to what causes CTE – how many hits are too many, when do they do the most damage, why are some people more susceptible than others – is the only thing that can save football in the long run.
Hernandez’s death at such a young age is going to be a tipping point for CTE and repetitive head trauma. If the NFL doesn’t recognize that, it’s not just deceitful. It’s delusional.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.