While football players across the NFL are making headlines for exercising their right to peacefully protest during the national anthem amidst presidential disapproval, one player has made headlines post-mortem. You likely recall that Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriot, committed suicide in his jail cell in April 2017 after being acquitted of a double murder but while still serving a life sentence for the murder of Odin Lloyd, the boyfriend of his fiancé’s sister. After his death that conviction was set aside per Massachusetts law however prosecutors are appealing this decision.
Naturally his suicide was devastating to his family–especially his fiancee, Shayanna Jenkins, the mother of his young daughter–but it was so concerning that the family asked for an examination of his brain. The results of those post mortem brain scans are doing more than raise a few eyebrows–they lead to the filing of a lawsuit.
There is no dispute that football is a dangerous sport. The long lasting, irreversible damage that results from the constant, repeated collisions and impacts has gained spotlight in the media after players have started speaking out more regularly about the dangers of concussions. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE is a degenerative brain disease that can only be studied post-mortem. According to ESPN, Dr. Ann McKee, the director of the CTE Center in Boston said that Aaron Hernandez had stage 3 of the disease…on a 4 stage scale. At that stage, one can expect cognitive disorders, depression, and mood swings that can turn violent. People most likely to suffer from CTE are military veterans, boxers, football players, and anyone who has had repeated head trauma. One study found that out of 111 NFL players, 110 had signs of the disease. Does this mean everyone who has CTE is going to turn violent or now has a defense backed by science should they find themselves charged with murder? No, of course not. But the results are interesting and warrant further study and research.
So, what do the findings about Hernandez’ brain have to do with the lawsuit? Note, plaintiffs are NOT claiming that the CTE caused Hernandez to murder Odin Lloyd. What the Hernandez lawsuit that was filed on Thursday, September 21st, 2017, against the NFL and the New England Patriots claims is that the NFL and the Patriots hid the dangers of playing football and in failing to warning Hernandez about the dangers of football, they are responsible for his death.
Regarding the severity of Hernandez’ CTE, his attorney, Jose Baez (who represented him in the double murder trial and also famously won the acquittal of Casey Anthony in the murder of her daughter, Caylee), said, “We’re told it was the most severe case they had ever seen for someone of Aaron’s age.” He also explained that Hernandez had exhibited signs of CTE, but, “When hindsight is 20-20, you look back and there are things you might have noticed, but you don’t know.”
With barely the ink dry on the lawsuit on September 22, 2017, NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said that the NFL will fight the lawsuit: “We intend to contest this claim vigorously.” Lockhart also made sure to reiterate that Hernandez is not the victim in this scenario. A convicted murderer, he may have suffered from CTE, but there is so much more to the story. “His personal story is complex, it doesn’t lend itself to simple answers. He was convicted of a homicide and his well-documented behavioral issues began long before he played in the National Football League.” He continued on to say, “The real victims here are the friends and family of the man who was killed, and those left behind, particularly his daughter.”
No surprise the NFL is going to fight this vigorously. They are known to fight most things that way. Here, though have good reason for that zeal. Hernandez only played 38 NFL games–he had taken many hits to head prior to that NFL career. As Chris Johnston, the highly regarded personal injury lawyer Minneapolis MN residents turn to when they seek vigorous representation points out, “Causation is going to be hotly contested as Hernandez played football in high school, in college as well as in the NFL. Pursuing claims only against the NFL and the Patriots will be very challenging.”
In addition to the issue of causation is the question of whether a court can properly entertain this lawsuit or whether the matter is governed by the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement which mandates that an arbitrator not a judge or jury hear and decides issues presented. The NFL has been successful with this argument on many prior occasions even those matters related to brain injury and no doubt they will raise this as they “contest this claim vigorously.”
Even if the case gets bounced from the courts, it’s an interesting one and bears addressing. The more the dangers of football and CTE, in particular, are highlighted, the more we can hope that something will be done, things will change, and the lives of these young men who see the promise of money, power, fame and chance to play the game they love, may receive more protection. In the end though what this case also highlights this rise and fall of Aaron Hernandez. He was only twenty seven when he died. To read more about the fallen football star and his legal battles click here and here.