When it comes to true-crime documentaries, there are two kinds. There are those that focus on the more sensational aspects of the crime, typically using hackneyed reenactments and voice-overs meant to sell you on the human drama. They’re cheap, often reductive, and sadly, there’s a lot of them.
But, at the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the other kind of true-crime documentary: the kind that seek to illuminate the real people involved. They show not only how our larger society is affected by these crimes but also how society itself sometimes plays a part in allowing these horrible events to take place.
The title of the new Netflix documentary Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez might lead you to believe it is the first kind of true crime doc—it almost sounds like it could be be a 1-hour Court TV special hosted by Nancy Grace.
But I assure you that it is not. It is very much the other kind.
This 3-part series shows events in the life of a man who became so unstable that he would throw away a bright future with every expectation of success, killing three different men for what appears to have been minor grievances. Killer Inside is reminiscent of ESPN’s fantastic eight-hour production OJ: Made in America. That landmark work was about much more than the Simpson case. It was about the media, the legal system, celebrity, race, and yes, this country’s worship of football.
Killer Inside covers all that territory, but it adds two other topics into the mix as well: sexuality and brain science.
When Hernandez was charged with the murder of Odin Lloyd in 2013, I was still an avid football fan. I watched the NFL every Sunday and Monday—almost without fail. When the news broke about Hernandez, the talented and physically gifted tight end of the New England Patriots, being taken into custody as the prime suspect in a homicide, I was rapt with attention. All the usual questions one might ask raced through my mind, but there was one question that I kept coming back to: “How could someone be so stupid?”
Here was a man living in a mansion with a 5-year, $40 million contract in hand who had apparently killed the boyfriend of his girlfriend’s sister in execution style. Why? At the time, he had no criminal record. As a football player, he seemed to be a model employee. He worked hard, showed up for practice, and on the field, he performed. The world was his.
Or so it appeared.
While I followed the case to fruition and learned what I could about the man (I recall reading an outstanding post-trial article in Rolling Stone), I quickly learned from watching Killer Inside that I had only viewed a thumbnail sketch of the man behind the murder.
Like all of us, Hernandez was a product of his environment. On the surface, his environment looked solid—his family unit was intact. They lived a suburban life in Connecticut. He did not come from a broken home, but he may have been broken in that home.
Aaron’s father was a star high school football player of Puerto Rican descent. He was known for being a stern taskmaster with rigid ideals about masculinity. He was also homophobic. Aaron’s older brother was a star quarterback. The youngest Hernandez had a lot to live up to.
I had no idea before I saw Killer Inside that Hernandez lived a dual life in regard to his sexuality. Outwardly, he was full of machismo. He had to be, didn’t he? Living under his father’s roof and playing the most masculine of games, being bisexual must have been like living in a vice. The two most important things in his life were his father and football. Neither would abide his sexuality. He could not have told his mother – she was self-involved, difficult, and, as one painful recorded prison call reveals, untrustworthy. There was no place for him to be his true self – not at home, and certainly not in the locker room.
So, he hid. He hid behind his jersey, his pads, and his helmet. He made himself the roughest, toughest person on the field. Too tough, perhaps. His rugged style of play resulted in collisions that are typical on a football field, but they were even more common for him. Hernandez didn’t try to avoid contact when he had the ball in his hands—he sought it.
When he was away from football, he took part in a different kind of tonic: marijuana. He smoked so much that friends described him as a marijuana chain smoker, and one interviewee in the film suggests he was never not high. Because Aaron Hernandez could not be himself, he found ways to numb himself. But if contact and weed did the trick—it did so at great cost.
When Hernandez’s father died suddenly toward the end of his high school years, the rigor and structure in his life began to slip away. He attended the University of Florida on scholarship. His drug use went on largely unabated, as did his success on the field. But there was one thing that did start to change: his behavior became increasingly erratic. The conflict that comes naturally in a football game became something he sought outside of the stadium as well. One evening while out at a bar, he turned suddenly violent. When asked to pay his drink tab by the manager, Hernandez struck the man on the head, knocking him to the ground and puncturing his eardrum.
The incident was covered up. Because football is worshiped not only at the University of Florida, but in the country as a whole, Hernandez was protected and his behavior excused by adults who should have known better. After all, there were football games to win, and Aaron Hernandez was one hell of a football player.
While his reputation as a wild young man was largely kept out of the papers, it wasn’t a secret to NFL teams. So, when Hernandez left college early to declare for the NFL draft, he was not selected until the fourth round by the Patriots, despite being a first-round talent.
In his three years as a pro, Hernandez was electric in uniform and deeply troubled out of it. Before the murder of Odin Lloyd, Hernandez was the likely drive-by shooter of two men in 2012, one of whom made the terrible mistake of spilling a drink on him at a club. The case went cold until the Odin Lloyd murder made the police take a second look at Hernandez who was seen on the club’s video surveillance footage that night.
All of these facts are presented in a well-organized and often riveting fashion. To say that Killer Inside “works” as a procedural is to deeply undersell how effective it is in that regard. However, what I found more fascinating was the series’ quiet indictment of football and what it has done, not only to men who play the game, but to our culture.
People who are otherwise perfectly rational in everyday life become something else altogether when football is involved. Willing to look past basic standards of decency, scream at the TV and fans of an opposing team, they will also make excuses for a murderer. Why? Because he’s really good at running with a funny shaped ball. Fans of Hernandez will insist – without even cursory knowledge of the case – that a man with mountains of evidence towering over him is innocent. They will wear his jersey like it’s their country’s flag. And maybe it is—The United States of Football.
Perhaps the saddest part of this story is that few people know that Hernandez was not just a football player who turned out to be a criminal. He was also a young man struggling with his sexuality in an occupation that leaves no room for sympathy. In addition, he was suffering from brain damage—specifically CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy)—a condition football players are being diagnosed with at an alarming rate.
The cause of CTE? Repeated blows to the head—the continuous jarring of the brain inside the skull. The symptoms of CTE include headaches, dizziness, sensitivity to light, and, most importantly, atrophy of temporal lobe. The result of this long-term brain damage is depression, confusion, and reduced impulse control often leading to violence. The NFL has continued to, at best, apply window dressing to the issue, and, at worst, deny their culpability. Their behavior flies in the face of the overwhelming amount of science citing football injuries as the cause of CTE in its players.
This isn’t to say that Aaron Hernandez is not responsible for his behavior, and it’s important to note that the series never suggests that either. There is nothing overly sympathetic about its presentation of Hernandez—in fact, it’s almost clinically dispassionate. The cumulative effect of the 3+ hours is to reveal what I believe many of us don’t want to see: that football, in the way that it is currently managed on the field and off, is bad for us. All of us.
The truth of the matter is that while Aaron Hernandez murdered at least one man and probably two others, he had help. He got it from a game that teaches young men to be aggressive and insensitive when it comes to the pain of others. It asks the player to give not only their bodies, but, as we now know, their minds for the sake of our entertainment.
It’s an ugly thing what football does to a player – inside and out. But it’s perhaps far uglier what it has done to our society. What does it teach us about what passes for acceptable behavior? What does it teach us about how to treat others? The game is killing people. Slowly, in tiny increments, every day. And we consume it like rabid beasts, too caught up in our foam-flecked fury to mind what is being done to these young men, and to we who cheer them on.
Killer Inside doesn’t try to make you care about Hernandez. It only tries to make you understand how he became a person who would could commit cold-blooded murder. In life, there are excuses and there are reasons. This remarkable series is focused on the latter. It argues that there is something greater at stake than the legacy of one professional athlete. What’s at stake is the future of many more brain-injured football players and those who might encounter them.
That is our culpability—our tacit agreement that this is okay. Killer Inside turns the camera back on us: the fans. It turns the camera on the full-of-fury apologist and the “my team, right or wrong” American.
If the only question we ask ourselves when we watch football is, “Are we not entertained?” then perhaps football is stunting our evolution.
I don’t know if I expected that question to be posed by a true-crime documentary, but then, this was an extraordinary piece of work. What I do know is that I have watched my last football game.