CTE, Homophobia, and The Question of Why? A Review of “The Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez”

*This article discusses sensitive themes like suicide and homophobia*

Just about every four days or so, Netflix works diligently to ensure that there is a specific show or movie that I cannot escape. They send me emails, screw with those weird “Suggested for You” ads on Facebook, and play an automatic trailer whenever I open up the Netflix app (which almost always startles me). This week, that specific show/movie was the three-episode docuseries entitled “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez” directed by Geno McDermott. I remember when Aaron Hernandez was in the news for the murder of Odin Lloyd, so I was already interested in watching the series. I was also interested in getting Netflix to stop suggesting the same series over and over again, so I watched it. I’m glad I did.

“Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez” is a great docuseries. While it is a well-done series for the same reasons any other docuseries is good (editing, pacing, topic, etc.), “Killer Inside” weaves in important social commentary on controversial topics. The series uses archival footage, telephone conversations, and interviews with family, friends, experts, and activists. The first episode opens with the murder of 27-year-old Odin Lloyd, who was dating the sister of Hernandez’s girlfriend. Shortly after Odin Lloyd was found, Hernandez was questioned in connection to the murder. At the time, the police stated that Hernandez was solely questioned because a rental car in his name was potential evidence. Soon after, we find that Hernandez’s house was scrubbed clean, his security system was tampered with, and destroyed cell phones were found on his property. Nine days after Lloyd was discovered, 23-year-old Hernandez was arrested for first-degree murder. The rest of the episode outlines Aaron Hernandez’s incredible and promising talent as an athlete from a very young age and includes interviews with long-time friends and neighbours, who can’t help but wonder one question… “Why?”.

The remainder of the series delves into Hernandez’s often toxic home-life, his questioned sexuality, specifics around this case, as well as a heartbreaking double murder that Hernandez was tried and acquitted of. Days after his acquittal, 27-year-old Hernandez committed suicide inside his prison cell. This series seems somewhat intrusive at times, we listen to phone conversations between Hernandez and his girlfriend and his infant daughter, as well as heated and personal conversations with his mother and cousin while he is in prison. I have little interest in diving into deep and personal issues of a dead and clearly troubled man, who has caused a lot of pain for Odin Lloyd’s family and friends.

The reason I found this docuseries so surprisingly interesting was because it calls out some hugely concerning issues with the NFL and sports culture. The series highlights the growing worry of severe brain trauma in football players. CTE stands for chronic traumatic encephalopathy and it is a serious brain disease that is cause by repeated head injury. The symptoms include negative behaviour and mood issues, forgetfulness, and suicidal thoughts. Hernandez’s brain was examined post-mortem and it was found that Hernandez had the most severe case of CTE that researchers had observed in someone of his age. Some suggest that Hernandez’s brain disease may have had an effect on his spiral of criminal behaviour. CTE is a huge problem in the NFL today, with players under the age of 30 retiring in fear of long-lasting and life-changing effects, with the science to back that fear up. The NFL claims it is the safest it has ever been.

The series also highlights the toxic locker-room culture that accompanies traditionally masculine sports. Homophobia is a topic of discussion throughout the series, citing Hernandez’s father’s homophobic nature, as well as the overall issue of homophobia in the NFL. Former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan was interviewed, and he recalls how it felt to be a closeted gay man surrounded by homophobia while playing football. O’Callaghan has said in the past that he never genuinely enjoyed football, and that the masculine sport was a cover up for his repressed sexuality. Over his years playing football, O’Callaghan heard and at times even participated in the regular exchange of gay slurs and offensive jokes at the expense of gay people. Once O’Callaghan saw his football career ending, he saw no other choice but to end his own life, he could not stand to hide anymore. O’Callaghan had a progressive discussion with his family about his sexuality and he decided to live and come out as a gay man. The series connects this to Hernandez’s repressed sexuality and his internal struggle with it, due to participating in a sports culture that wasn’t accepting of gay people. The series plants the seed in the viewer’s mind that this may have contributed to Hernandez’s inner turmoil that caused him to lash out in the most violent ways and ultimately ending his own life.

Aaron Hernandez is responsible for the pain he has caused to Odin Lloyd’s family. He made decisions that resulted in the senseless loss of life, as well as other reckless and dangerous decisions leading up to the murder. However, this docuseries calls into question other concerning factors that run rampant in the NFL and overall sports culture. CTE is an extremely serious area of concern and continues to be closely monitored by health professionals who are weary of the long-term effects of the disease. Toxic sports culture also needs to take a step back and look at the language and barriers it uses against gay people, barriers that have such negative and adverse effects that it is able to drive players to the brink of suicide.