As you may already know, American football has been the most popular sport in the United States since 1972.1 American football has tenured the top spot in popularity for about half a century now, and it is also officially considered “the 9th most popular sport all around the world.”2 The organization in charge of this wild success is none other than the National Football League, or the NFL. Even if you are not too familiar with football, I am sure you’ve seen it promoted on TV, while scrolling through social media, or through some friends. If not, you have probably watched or heard of the Super Bowl, which is also known as “the biggest American television event of every single year.”3 Indeed, there are a large amount of people who simply watch the Super Bowl for the halftime show or the commercials alone. From all this, it would be unfair to emphasize the unparalleled impact the National Football League has on the various communities of the United States. The spectacle of football, at its very core, has always been about competitive physicality. Aside from the fun entertainment aspect of the game, there exists a dark side that lies deep beyond the initial layer of sportsmanship and entertainment. The culture of the NFL used to be about promoting and advertising on the various damages the players experienced while playing the game. To that end, there was actually a segment on ESPN’s Monday Night Pregame called Jacked Up! that focused entirely on that aspect alone. It was not until 2009 that the NFL began making safety-inspired changes to the popular sport.4 Because football is a very physical game, it includes many serious injuries, and these common injuries often have a detrimental impact on mental health. The NFL, in 2019, is currently celebrating its 100th season, but it was not until ten seasons ago that they began taking larger strides towards safety in the game. Since then, there have been many notable cases through the history of this sport that have shined a spotlight on the seriousness of injuries that affect mental health. This disease is specifically called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. CTE disease is one that develops overtime with repeated head injuries. One highly broadcasted case involving this health issue is the story of Aaron Hernandez.
Aaron Hernandez was a professional American football player who was drafted by the New England Patriots. At the end of his career, he suffered from one of the most prominent cases of CTE ever before seen in the NFL. Although the cause of the disease resulted from a variety of factors, Hernandez played an offensive position that was extremely physical. Before being drafted, Hernandez notably started his football career in 2006 at his local high school in Bristol, Connecticut. Playing the position of tight end in high school, Hernandez led Bristol Central High to a Central Connecticut Conference Southern Division Championship. From there, he enrolled into the University of Florida, and quickly began to set himself apart from his peers as one of the best at his position. Hernandez was unique at his position as he had the size and strength of a tight end merged with the catching ability and speed of a wide receiver. He began setting records at the University of Florida with 111 catches in a three-year span, which had previously been considered largely impossible to achieve. Thanks to his efforts, the team even won the National Championship in 2008. After only three years at the University of Florida, Hernandez felt like it was time to take the next step and enter the 2010 NFL Draft. After a quick wait, he was ultimately drafted in the fourth round as the 113th pick overall by the New England Patriots. Hernandez had an immediate impact on the team by setting records as a rookie, and he also became one of the youngest top-level talent in the NFL. After three seasons in the NFL, Hernandez was paving a path for an illustrious career. As a result of his hard work and tremendous talent on the field, he was given a five-year contract extension in 2012. While playing for one of the most decorated franchises in the NFL, life seemed pretty great for Aaron Hernandez. That is, until he was accused and convicted of the murder of Odin Lloyd in 2013.5
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a disease that is acquired most likely through athletes in contact sports such as boxing, rugby, hockey, and football. CTE is a progressive degenerative disease that is caused by a series of repetitive head trauma. The pattern of repetitive head trauma causes an escalation of an unusual protein called tau. The tau protein usually appears as a dark brown color within the brain tissue. This disease does not only affect professional athletes who have been playing contact sports for longer periods of time, but CTE has also been discovered in athletes who stopped playing in high school. Symptoms of CTE include “memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, suicidality, parkinsonism, and eventually progressive dementia.”6 There is an unknown time table for when the progression of the symptoms may begin to occur, as it can begin months after the termination of contact sports or it may show up ten years after.
The disease had been a question of concern since the 1920’s, but there was little to no evidence for a full discovery. CTE was initially named “punch drunk syndrome” and “dementia pugilistica” as the initial diagnosis pertained to professional boxers.7 It was not until 2005 that forensic pathologist and neuropathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu, made a revolutionary discovery of the first physical evidence of CTE in an ex-professional American football player. Dr. Omalu also described and coined the current term for this disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).8
On June 17, 2013, Odin Lloyd was tragically murdered, and a jogger discovered his body in an industrial park that was about a mile away from Aaron Hernandez’s place of residence in North Attleborough, Massachusetts. Lloyd and Hernandez were actually friends, although it was a complicated relationship. It arose out of the fact that Hernandez was engaged to his fiancé, Shayanna Jenkins. Shayanna’s sister, Shaneah Jenkins, was actually dating Odin Lloyd at the time. Despite their close connection, Hernandez was eventually arrested about nine days later to answer for the murder of Odin Lloyd, to which he would plead not guilty. It was on this very day that the New England Patriots would release him from the team. With his career put on hiatus, Hernandez would eventually go on trial for the murder of Odin Lloyd in January 2015. After a lengthy trial, he was finally found guilty of first-degree murder of Odin Lloyd and received a sentence of life in prison.9 The evidence used in the trial was very compelling, and the fact that Hernandez was the murderer simply could not be denied. There was an overwhelming amount of different types of physical evidence, which depicted a story of a poorly orchestrated murder by the former football star. A lot of the physical evidence used in court originated directly from Hernandez’s home, straight from his own surveillance footage. The first tape showed Hernandez picking Lloyd up outside of Lloyd’s home at 2:33 a.m. in a rented Nissan Altima. The second displays Hernandez arriving at home without Lloyd at 3:27 am, and it also shows him walking into his home with a gun in his hand. Through the use of proper search warrants, the state was able to acquire a chain of text messages between Hernandez and Lloyd that happened prior to the murder. In a normal context, the text messages between both men basically showed an invitation from Hernandez to hang out, from a friend to a friend. Although that was definitely not the case, when one considers the subsequent events that happened later that night. The trial then showed DNA evidence linking Hernandez to the crime, that was found on a “blue bubble gum stuck to the shell casing of a .45-caliber handgun, which matched several casings police bagged near Lloyd’s body.”10 The bubble gum and the casing were found inside the rented Nissan Altima by the rental company who performed their common car cleaning routine. During this time there were never any clear motives as to why Hernandez fatally shot Odin Lloyd six times. Of course, there were plenty of speculations in court and without that offered up, suggestions as to what Hernandez’s motives were were not definitive. At this time, they had not yet discovered that Aaron Hernandez was suffering from severe forms of CTE. This is important to note, considering how badly orchestrated the whole situation was. The crime clearly shows some of the symptoms discussed earlier, including “impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression.” These rash and illogical actions depict those of a man who is not exercising his full rational senses. Aaron Hernandez’s incarceration was just another stone in the pathway that would eventually lead to his suicide.
CTE has had an impact on many, as Aaron Hernandez was certainly not the only player who has been affected by this disease. As of right now, CTE is irreversible, and it comes with symptoms that do not show up immediately. In 2017, neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee examined the brains of 111 former NFL players who were deceased, and found that 110 of those brains suffered from CTE.11 While this might appear to be an issue exclusive to the NFL, it runs much deeper than that. The disease is a huge public health issue when one considers all the youth around the world who idolize these players in the NFL. Children grow up watching their favorite players on TV and often dream of becoming just like them. Even now, as the consequences of concussions on the human brain are being talked about in society, young kids continue to ignore these risks and strive to reach a professional level. While more and more parents are becoming aware of the consequences of such a brutal contact sport, it is not stopping them from allowing young athletes from signing up and participating in the sport. Although schools are beginning to limit the amount of practice that teams that are allowed in full gear and full contact, the fact remains that these athletes must still participate in games that allow full contact. The brain was never intended to receive continual blows to the head. It is a given that a majority of these young athletes will obtain a hit to the head—whether it be between players or on the turf. While an athlete may not experience concussion symptoms after every hit, the abuse to the brain only multiplies throughout the season and ultimately contributes to permanent brain trauma in the long run. More awareness needs to be brought to this issue, not just in the professional sport, but to young athletes and their parents. It is difficult to seriously consider the risks when the sport itself continues to incentivize athletes around the nation to pursue a career in football. Not only can one gain a free college education to play the sport, but earning an opportunity to play college ball may also get them a better shot at making it into the NFL, which is a multi-billion-dollar industry that pays their athletes with large multi-million-dollar contracts. What makes the various incentives even more dangerous is that athletes who are truly committed to making it as a professional football player may ignore injuries to the head throughout their football careers in an effort to display their skills at a maximum potential. “Shake it off” is a popular phrase that teammates exchange in the sport of football after seeing a teammate receive a major blow to the body and head. Still, athletes are failing to recognize the underlying consequences of such violent hits. While they may be shaking off the pain and concussion-like symptoms, their brains are shaking off and killing neurons that are all vital in sending messages to the body and executing a proper function of the body and mind. Based on the research on CTE, the symptoms displayed in individuals with the disease pose a danger not only to the athlete themselves, but to those around them. As mentioned earlier, there is an undeniable link between CTE and a risk for suicide.12
This very link between CTE and suicide was what led Aaron Hernandez to his tragic death. While serving his life sentence, Hernandez committed suicide on April 19, 2017. Hernandez was found at 3:05 a.m. hung with a bedsheet from his cell window, and he also jammed his cell door with various items to avoid being resuscitated in time.13 In September 2017, Aaron Hernandez’s autopsy disclosed severe levels of CTE. Dr. Ann McKee was actually the one who discovered that Hernandez had stage three CTE, which was one stage away from the most severe. McKee had previous experience in examining over a hundred brains with different levels of CTE, and determined that Hernandez had really severe levels of CTE since the age of twenty-seven, which had never been seen in a brain younger than forty-three. This brought a concern that younger players were beginning to develop CTE earlier, possibly due to the current increase level of aggressiveness in the game of football. Dr. McKee stated in her conference that “we can say collectively, in our collective experience, that individuals with CTE—and CTE of this severity—have difficulty with impulse control, decision-making, inhibition of impulses for aggression, emotional volatility, rage behaviors. We know that collectively.”14 Obviously, this was all discovered after Hernandez’s death, but we can see the link CTE may have had on his life events. This tragic case has also showed us how significant CTE can be on younger athletes, as they continue to adapt to the aggressive nature of the sport. This is why it is so important to bring awareness to anyone and everyone playing a contact sport.
There have been major impacts on the NFL and the game of football since these discoveries came to light. Multiple players have sued the NFL over being diagnosed with CTE, including the Hernandez family. They took action against the NFL and the New England patriots for leading Hernandez to believe that the game was safe.15 Since the discovery of CTE, the NFL has begun to make changes to improve players safety. More specifically, the NFL had to respond to Dr. Ann Mckee’s research on the state of the brains of 111 ex-NFL players. There has definitely been an emphasis on player safety in recent years, and the NFL has “pledged $100 million in support for independent medical research and engineering advancements in neuroscience related topics. This is in addition to the $100 million that the NFL and its partners are already spending on medical and neuroscience research.”16 One of the main points of emphasis was improving player equipment, and the most recent change would make changes to the NFL’s new helmet guidelines in 2019. This year, the NFL is only allowing helmet models that have been approved by the league. These approved helmets have been tested by a skilled team of bio-mechanical engineers, which discontinued the use of many old helmets that have now been labeled as unsafe.17
Aside from making the equipment safer, the NFL has also issued new rules to protect the players on the field. One of the most recent changes done was that it is not allowed for a player to lower his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.18 Rules like these are making players adjust their tackling forms and techniques in order to make the game safer.
Aaron Hernandez’s journey from NFL superstar to suicide is just one of the cases of former NFL players who have suffered from CTE. That is a very drastic transition, and Hernandez was one of the youngest players suffering from Stage 3 CTE. The fact that his brain suffered so much trauma after only three seasons in the NFL raised a tremendous amount of concern for the assumption that many younger players may be developing this degenerative disease a lot quicker than was initially thought. CTE should be perceived as a serious concern for everyone, as it involves symptoms that alter a person’s way of being with things, such as impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and risk of suicide, which can affect the individual and those close to them. This constitutes much more than just an NFL health issue, as the popularity of the NFL has a major impact on a lot of people around the world, especially with the youth. The youth admire and are inspired by many different players in the NFL, so much so that they dream of following in their footsteps. Note, however, that this admiration is not necessarily a bad thing, but that we should be aware of the dangers that the game of football may bring. Bringing awareness about the degenerative disease, CTE, can reduce the risk of current players developing CTE. Information about CTE may also discourage some from playing football, but that is totally okay, as only those willing to accept the risk should be playing in the first place. Though, for those who decide they still want to play, or are currently playing football, we must keep the game as safe as possible. We can do things like making sure that little leagues, middle school, high school, and college football have safety-updated equipment, and by making sure that they all learn and practice proper techniques to avoid unsafe impacts. In being aware and making a high emphasis on players safety now, we can avoid the risk of running into an increase of incidents that Aaron Hernandez and many other players have had.