To the world, it seemed Aaron Hernandez had it all. At 22, the NFL tight end had a mansion, a beautiful fiancée, and an adorable baby daughter. He had already scored a touchdown in the Super Bowl as well as a $40 million contract with the New England Patriots. So it came as a real shock to sports fans when Hernandez was arrested in 2013 for the murder of semi-pro footballer Odin Lloyd. This would just be the beginning of the unpeeling of Hernandez’s carefully constructed persona. Another murder case would be placed at his feet, leaving the press to speculate about how an NFL great could fall so far so fast. In Netflix’s new limited-series Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, documentarian Geno McDermott grapples for answers but comes up short.
Why would Hernandez murder Lloyd, a man who was by all accounts his friend? Why would the NFL star allegedly hunt down two Boston locals, Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, to fatally shoot them after a night of clubbing? Why would he allow his cancer-stricken cousin, Tanya Singleton, to hide evidence, even to the point where she’d be jailed for it? Why did he begin stocking up on guns? Why did he get a secret apartment away from his would-be wife and baby? What was going on inside his head?
Over the course of three episodes, Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez pursues several possibilities into this last question, one of them literal. Maybe Hernandez’s brain was broken. Over the past decade, a growing concern among NFL players is chronic traumatic encephalopathy, neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries, like those sustained in football games, boxing, wrestling, and ice hockey. Symptoms of CTE include moodiness, impulsiveness, and violent outbursts.
The doc takes pains to track how pro football players are encouraged to play for today and play through the pain, even when it means risking their own lives. Recounted is the tragic story of Patriots linebacker Junior Seau, whose illustrious career came to a grim end in 2012 when he shot himself in the chest. His suicide note requested that they study his brain, which was posthumously diagnosed with CTE. From there, San Francisco 49ers alum Chris Borland speaks to how Seau and Hernandez’s fates urged him to retire after just one year in the NFL. He says the organization doesn’t care for the players who make its millions, explaining, “It’s like Dracula runs the blood bank.”
The documentary makes a compelling argument for the NFL’s damning impact on Hernandez, but there’s plenty more finger-pointing to come. Some blame is aimed at the football star’s father, who was strict, macho, allegedly physically abusive, and cast a long shadow even after his death. As a teen, Hernandez was devastated by the loss of his father, and felt neglected by his mother, who was quick to move a new man into her life and their family home. There’s also an allegation that Hernandez was molested as a youth, which spurred trauma about his sexuality that he struggled to overcome.
Hernandez’s sexuality became a part of his criminal cases, and is the source of much discussion in the doc. A former friend recounts how he and Hernandez experimented sexually in their youth, in what he—looking back—would call a romantic relationship. The prosecution briefly suggested that Hernandez’s sexuality and shame over it was a motive for murder. Yet it was ultimately a radio show that outed him publicly with crude innuendos about “tight ends” and “wide receivers.” In the doc, journalists and the aforementioned friend openly talk about Hernandez’s proposed bisexuality, but Hernandez himself never made a public statement about it. Still, the documentary aims for balance to the potentially exploitative angle on the man’s private life by exploring the stories of gay men whose lives might have mirrored Hernandez. The former friend speaks to how the sports star’s so-called “outing” ultimately urged him to come out to his father. The pair are interviewed together, revealing how the once homophobic father grew in his understanding of LGBQTA+ issues and his own son. Because of Hernandez, this father-son duo had the chance at healing and acceptance he never did.
Then, there’s Ryan O’Callaghan, former Patriot offensive tackle. Over the course of three episodes, his story plays as an unspoken “what might have been” for Hernandez as he explains his personal coming-out narrative. As a boy, O’Callaghan realized he was gay and was terrified of what that might mean. So, he turned to football, leaning into every cliché of what it meant to be a “sloppy straight guy.” He purposefully put on weight and tried to look unkempt, hoping that this look would keep people from asking why he didn’t have a girlfriend. He tried to be as macho as possible so no one would wonder. Now out, proud, and quite kempt, O’Callaghan muses that maybe this was why Hernandez shied away from the community of the Patriots team, covered himself in tattoos, and dug into a street life of guns, night clubs, and drugs. Maybe that made him feel like a real man?
Behind each of these theories to the why of Hernandez’s motives, there is a common theme the doc leaves unsaid: Toxic Masculinity. The NFL demanded he be a titan of the sport, suggesting real men play through the pain. His macho father was the idol to which he aspired, and it’s possible that being bi or gay didn’t fit into his image of what that meant. Despite lining up these arguments, McDermott falls short of tying them all together into an apparent feminist argument that traditional masculinity is a trap that tells men their feelings are a failing and their pain is to be ignored. Nonetheless, the doc suggests such behavior leads to eruptions, violence, and in this case murder.
Still, there is a hole at the center of Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, because Hernandez does not get to speak for himself. His suicide in 2017 saw to that. He cannot speak to his motives, his actions, or speculations about his sexual orientation. McDermott is left with archival footage of Hernandez on the field, family videos and photos of him smiling, and many, many recorded phone calls from his time in prison. But all of these are moments when Hernandez knew he was being recorded. So, they are all arguably a performance on some level. Here he is as the NFL star famous for his hustle and big personality. Here he is as the loving friend, the cuddling dad. Here he is as the upbeat prisoner who seems ever-hopeful in the face of multiple murder cases. In the end, Hernandez still felt unknowable. McDermott points fingers all over to explain how a handsome, talented, hard-working family man who seemed to be living the American Dream could go off the rails so dramatically. Yet even after three episodes, many interviews with press, peers, and former friends, the doc and McDermott seem at a loss and leave us with plenty of questions but few answers.
Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez is now on Netflix.
Header Image Source: Netflix