It didn’t seem possible for the Aaron Hernandez saga to become any more tragic, nor for the NFL’s disastrous concussion problem to be magnified any more, but this past week proved that the downward spiral is only continuing.
The researchers at Boston University, who have been responsible for the majority of the last decade’s most important chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) research, ran tests on his brain and discovered very disturbing results.
Hernandez’s brain actually showed the second most severe case of CTE known in history and had advanced to stages far beyond what was expected for a 27 year old football player.
According to a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court by Hernandez’s estate, Aaron Hernandez had Stage III CTE, which is usually seen in a median age of 67 years.
Among the symptoms of CTE: Cognitive impairment, substance abuse, short-term memory loss, suicidal thoughts, impulsive behavior and potentially aggression. It’s that last one that will probably be the most haunting for the high-ups in the NFL, as well as any youth players zoning in on a long term career in football.
After all, no matter who you are, there is no football fan whose primary memory of Aaron Hernandez is not the murder trial and his imprisonment.
Pair that up with the NFL’s growingly public domestic abuse problem and a history of violent crime in general, and you have a lot of people getting worried that football might take away more than just their bodies and, their memories. It could also take their own values and humanity.
In a time in our country where one third of parents are already saying that they won’t let their kids play football, news stories like Hernandez’s could be detrimental to the long term future of the NFL.
It seems impossible to think of an America where the NFL does not reign supreme over all other forms of entertainment, and yet, you could have said something similar about the sport of boxing just a half century ago.
The difference in how this news story affects the public compared to others is that we get to see a real human being’s descent played out in front of us. NFL fans watched the horrifying story unfold—Hernandez went from being an up-and-coming tight end, to a murderer and victim of suicide. Now we know that looming over all of those events was the dark shadow of one of the worst CTE cases in history.
It’s a high-profile story that ends in tragedy, the kind of football story that turns our long-standing jealousy of these guys who make millions playing football into a kind of pity.
Of course, it doesn’t start or end with Aaron Hernandez. There was also Javon Belcher murdering his girlfriend in 2012 just before committing suicide, former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson who donated his brain before taking his own life in 2011, and although it’s no sure thing yet, the famous concussion psychologist Dr. Bennett Omalu has publicly said that he would “bet his medical license” that O.J. Simpson has CTE.
Of course, every sport has stars with tragic endings. But this is crucial because in the case of the NFL, playing football is largely suspected as a potential reason that these lives turn out the way they have. People who aspire to become NFL legends dream of the fortune, the celebrity status and luxurious mansion. Now, they have to consider a new part of that dream—the memory loss, the depression and the terrifying prospect of losing control entirely.
The more actual faces we put on the idea of concussions, the more real this storyline will begin to feel. And the NFL, an organization facing countless lawsuits over sweeping CTE under the rug for so long, will continue to look less like a sports league and more like a white-collar criminal.
Perhaps it will eventually culminate in the firing of commissioner Roger Goodell, or a complete overhaul of the way the organization is operated. But the one certainty is that the NFL is about to see a much smaller slice of America’s young athletes, and the careers will likely be much shorter.
It seems it’s only a matter of time then, when stories like Aaron Hernandez become too overwhelming for stories like Drew Brees to hold any kind of that inspirational power that keeps a sport great. For better or worse, the decline of America’s game is already underway.