Depression, dementia, violence, suicide: American football in shock

Depression, dementia, violence, suicide: American football in shock

Donald Trump wasn't the National Football League's biggest problem. Aaron Hernandez's autopsy, six months after his prison suicide, confirms that in-game shock takes a serious toll on mental health

He had planned everything to slow down possible rescue efforts: he blocked the door to his cell with cardboard boxes, then spread shampoo on the floor. Aaron Hernandez then hung himself with his sheets. This happened on April 19, 2017 in the Souza-Baranowski maximum security prison in Shirley, Massachusetts. The 27-year-old American soccer player with a body covered in tattoos had been languishing there for two years already, sentenced to life for the murder of the boyfriend of his fiancee's sister, a semi-professional soccer player.

This sordid affair returns today on the front of the scene. Autopsy results presented on Thursday prove that he was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), at a very advanced stage: level 3 on a scale of 4. What to revive suspicions of cause and effect between his brain degeneration, result of cranial shocks endured during his career as a footballer, and his murderer behavior followed by a suicide. An ultra-sensitive case, which agitates the world of sports in the United States.

Big holes

As soon as the results were known, Jose Baez, the lawyer of the Hernandez family, decided to summon the National Football League (NFL) and the former team of the player, the New England Patriots, before a federal civil court. He points the finger of responsibility, accuses them of hiding the real dangers of the sport and hopes to obtain significant compensation for the daughter of the player, aged 4 years at the time of his death. The case being particularly delicate, the specialized unit of Boston University in charge of the autopsy proceeded to two successive examinations before making its results public. In a press release dated September 21, it recalls that the footballer's brain also suffered from early atrophy and large perforations in the thin vertical membrane that separates the two hemispheres.

CTE, which can only be diagnosed post-mortem, can have many side effects. It can cause memory loss, depression, dementia, violent acts and premature death, including suicide.


The Boston University CTE Center, which has the world's largest database of brains affected by the syndrome, examined the brains of many soccer players. And its conclusions are clear: at the end of July, the laboratory published its results in the Journal of the American Medical Association, establishing a clear correlation between the violence of American soccer and brain degeneration. Of the 111 brains of former NFL players examined, neuropathologist Ann McKee, who is also the director of the center, concluded that 110 suffered from CTE. A proportion that owes nothing to chance.

A brain of a 67-year-old

In total, she examined the brains of 202 soccer players who died between the ages of 23 and 89. These were Canadian Football League professionals in addition to NFL players, but also semi-professionals and amateurs in various positions on the field. In all, 177 (87%) had CTE. Some of the players themselves had requested that their brains be examined after their death. For example, Ken Stabler, a star of the Oakland Raiders in the 1970s, died of brain cancer. He died of colon cancer in July 2015 at the age of 69. Ann McKee was able to confirm that his brain did exhibit the characteristics of CTE.

Typically, the average age of patients with stage 3 CTE is 67. That's 40 years older than Aaron Hernandez, which gives an idea of the severity of his condition. His brain looked like a raisin. Data collected by a team at Stanford University has shown that a player's hits during a game can be as powerful as a car going 50 km/h into a brick wall.

As the controversy swells, the NFL has had to respond.

Prevention efforts are being made, especially with children. And the teams' star quarterbacks now have better head protection. The NFL has already been rebuked by families of former players who say they weren't properly informed about the dangers of the sport: in a 2015 out-of-court settlement, it agreed to pay them millions of dollars in compensation. Now, she is focusing on shoring up her defense, to prevent a domino effect and the filing of new complaints. In Hernandez's case, the league can easily argue that he was already playing American soccer in college and that the injuries may have already been caused at that time. It is difficult to prove otherwise. The courts will decide.

A 40 million dollar contract

After successful early exploits, Aaron Hernandez had signed a four-year, $40 million contract with the Patriots at the age of 22. That was in 2012. But his downfall will have been as meteoric as his early career. In April 2015, he was convicted of a murder committed in 2013, the year his team rushed to break the contract, as soon as the first suspicions appeared.

Before taking his own life, Aaron Hernandez had written three letters, one of which was addressed to his fiancée, the mother of his daughter. It was made public by the Massachusetts State Department of Corrections. A handwritten love letter, in which he wrote "YOU'RE RICH", in capital letters, a possible reference to the six million dollars that the New England Patriots might have to pay his family, as unpaid salaries and bonuses. By dying without having exhausted all avenues of recourse, he indirectly pushes the judge to declare his prison sentence null and void and his former team to have no more excuses for not paying amounts due. This is why his letter was interpreted as announcing his suicide.

Rumors quickly surrounded his death, which took place on the same day that Donald Trump received his former team at the White House after the victory at the Super Bowl: he would have tried to cover up a homosexual affair with an inmate, to whom he would have promised 50 000 dollars. His lawyer was quick to deny this information.

Violent outbursts

The timing is also strange. Five days before his suicide, Aaron Hernandez had been cleared in the case of a double murder committed in July 2012 in Boston, outside a nightclub, for a silly story of spilled drink. A victory for attorney Jose Baez, who was also hoping to get back on track about the 2013 murder. In neither case, the footballer, who liked to show off with firearms, did not want to invoke problems of brain degeneration, because he has always claimed his innocence.

However, his name has often been associated with acts of violence, including during his stay in prison. Could his brain damage have something to do with it? The mystery may never really be solved.

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