‘Killer Inside’ Claims the NFL and New England Patriots Were Complicit in Aaron Hernandez’s Dark Turn
The Netflix docuseries “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez” implicates the NFL and Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots in the star player’s journey to madness and murder.
There is a scene late in Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, Netflix’s new documentary miniseries about the chaotic, murderous life of the accomplished Florida Gators and New England Patriots tight end, that sums up the aesthetic and intellectual approach it takes in addressing Hernandez’s deeply strange and confusing life story. When Hernandez hung himself in his jail cell, you see, he wrote “JOHN 3:16” on his forehead. The documentary tells us this, the background music amps up, there are some quick cuts, and then, for a brief second, we see the visage of Hernandez’s Florida teammate, Tim Tebow, kneeling on the football field, with the same Bible verse written across his eyeblack. A brief montage of stained-glass depictions of Christ follows.
What is this bit of filmmaking flair trying to say, exactly? That Hernandez and Tebow weren’t so different? That Tebow was made into a living saint by the same systems, football and american Christianity, that dismantled Hernandez’s life wholesale? That it was a pretty weird coincidence, and hey, check out this sick stained glass of Christ on the cross? God only knows. Any rational person looking at the sloppy, deeply unnecessary murders Hernandez committed inevitably ends up running aground of anything resembling a conventional answer. His life was a mess, and it turned him into a terrifying, irrational machine.
Netflix’s take on the story doesn’t even try to sort out this mess in any conclusive way, it just sets out the threads of his life and lets the audience pick whichever conclusion they think makes sense. It’s expertly engineered for cursory online discussions about “what happened,” but short on real answers.
Even in writing this critical take, I feel like I am doing the work the documentary wants me to do on its behalf. All true-crime content has the stench of exploiting tragedy for content, of course, but the intensely-speculative nature of this particular bit is really going out of its way to make buzz, instead of enlightening anyone on the matter at all.
Some of the threads the series tosses out are fueled by pure innuendo. A lot is made of the fact that Hernandez smoked weed—darkly-lit shots of dank buds sitting on a table, for instance. Talking heads from his early life in Connecticut talk about the tattoos he acquired while playing for Florida, and are, shocked, shocked that this was the path his life had taken. Of course, anyone with a lick of sense knows that weed and ink don’t turn you into a murderer.
The more concrete threads are the ones that relate to Hernandez’s ongoing performance of masculinity, in both his messy, torturous personal life, the murders he committed, and his life as a professional football player. His father, Dennis Hernandez, is presented as an imperious man who operated on moral authority derived from masculine strength, keeping Aaron and his brother DJ in line with an air of menace and subjecting their mother to routine domestic abuse. In this climate, Aaron developed a dependence on the approval of a man who was, of course, inherently unpleasable and volatile. In a jailhouse call, he reflects on this contradiction: “My father was a good man, you know what I mean? But he was also very wild.” He expresses a kind of half understanding that his dad created a hostile environment, but he doesn’t quite understand that this environment was bad for him.
And it was especially bad for Hernandez, because he was almost certainly a homosexual, at least to some degree. He allegedly carried on a sexual relationship with a football buddy of his at a very young age, he is said to have had sex with men in prison, and there was a stream of rumors following his relationships with men for most of his football career. His father, whose strict concept of masculine authority would never allow for unconventional sexual expression, was the closest thing Hernandez had to a moral center. It’s easy to see how some degree of his relationship to violence, on and off the field—football being both his father’s expression of masculine virtue and also a deeply-violent game—was informed by his fight to compensate for the missteps his father would ascribe to him.
When Dennis died during a routine hernia surgery, though, Hernandez was left without a center at all, even a shitty one. When it came time to leave for college, instead of attending the University of Connecticut, his father’s alma mater, like he had planned for most of his life, he signed up with coach Urban Meyer at the University of Florida, where he caught passes from Tim Tebow and won national titles.
Meyer’s life and career are a manifestation of the basest cynicism of college sports, rewarded and exalted at every possible turn. He is the kind of guy who gives interviews where he insists that he makes sure his players go to class, extols the virtues of football as a builder of character, all while his charges constantly find themselves in trouble or die of MDMA overdoses, while the school and their coach make money hand over fist on their accomplishments and do nothing to address the real-life problems of their teenage charges. But, he wins games, so the sports media and boosters just kind of go along with it and declare him a leader of men, because sports regard winning games as a moral good, instead of what it is.
Archival footage in the documentary features Urban and his wife, Shelly, expressing profound shock about Hernandez’s crimes, talking about how he ate dinner at their house and it was just so surreal, doing all the mourning they possibly can to distance themselves from their supposed responsibilities as moulders of young men. Meanwhile, between those warm, inviting, character-building dinners, Hernandez gets in enough trouble that it affects his NFL Draft stock, sliding all the way to the fourth round. The Patriots, an organization built around that other kind of masculine excess—dispassionate “do your job”-type professionalism—take him.
Scouting reports on Hernandez note that he has a propensity for trouble, but also that he is a consummate professional and an immensely coachable player. He excels on the field, of course. He also slips further and further into his private madness, associating with violent drug kingpins and cultivating an intense, moment-to-moment paranoia.
It did not matter on the field. He is excellent. After Hernandez—unknown to his team or even suspected by law enforcement—is involved in the double murder of a pair of migrant workers (whether or not he pulled the trigger is a matter of debate; he was acquitted in court), the Patriots give him a 4-year, $40 million contract.
Later that season, Hernandez, sitting somewhere between paranoia and sincere trouble with a local drug dealer, asked the Patriots to trade him somewhere else. The Patriots, always up for the most bloodless, cynical patch-up solution possible, did not grant his request. They also did not take the time to figure out what was going on with their player and get him real help or turn him in to the proper authorities. Instead, they got him a new apartment in another part of town where he could lay low, and would allegedly inject him with drugs during games, according to Hernandez. He kept producing on the field, and the Patriots dusted off their hands and called it a job well done.
Within the year, he murders Odin Lloyd, his fiancée’s sister’s fiancé, once a buddy of his, in cold blood, for no reason that is apparent to anyone interviewed in the documentary—especially the prosecutors who worked the case.
In Playing for Keeps, David Halberstam suggests that the mental quality that made Michael Jordan MICHAEL JORDAN was his superhuman ability to compartmentalize. Playing a game, practicing, doing a commercial, getting some light gambling in, whatever: no one thing ever seemed to affect another thing, and it let him excel at basically everything he tried at during his ‘90s heyday. Every great athlete has this quality, to some degree or another. Tiger Woods was a spectacularly boring man who plays absurdly disciplined golf when he steps on the course, but off the greens, he was a sex-addicted weirdo putting up numbers you can’t even believe. Babe Ruth, hero to all children and Dionysus of the Roaring Twenties. O.J. Simpson, smiling rental-car pitchman and abusive murderer.
Hernandez clearly had this quality, to some degree or another—the mental ability, if you can call it that, to take a human life and go into practice and run routes like nothing happened. His downfall was not predicted by his career as an athlete on the field. It was just that the monster he shoved in a drawer was too big, too weird, to ever really be controlled.
Sports, football especially, sell an ideal about using the game to develop a whole person. But they don’t, at least not on their own, especially when they’re engines for profit. On-field performance will always take precedence, totally willing to let someone slip into oblivion if they’re showing up to practice and getting yards. Urban Meyer can suspend you for one game, yell at you, play daddy disciplinarian all he wants, serving out slaps on the wrist will never be a proper substitute for recognizing that a young person who grew up in a bad environment is in crisis, and getting him the real help he needs to not go flying down a treacherous path to hell. The masculine virtues of victory don’t fix anything in any real way.
Of course, it also probably didn't help that football turned Hernandez’s brain into goo. When Hernandez’s brain was examined by CTE studies pioneer Ann McKee, it exhibited the worst CTE ever found in a brain his age, even after being separated from the sport for several years before his death. There was a lot of damage in his frontal lobes, the part of the brain that controls judgment and decision-making.
Killer Inside strains for a lot of answers in figuring out why a middle-class kid with all the money a rational person could ever spend lost his mind and started murdering people. CTE, his terrible childhood, a deep complex around validating his own masculinity, becoming unmoored when his father died and his family fell apart are all gently suggested, Hernandez’s life and death made into a Rorschach blot for the audience to see whatever dead dog they are inclined to think is the culprit. It should go without saying that no one thing is correct: man’s mind is chaotic at best, and Hernandez’s mind was beset by a litany of chaoses that all fed into an inherently unstable whole.
But one thing it gets one hundred percent right is that the institution of football did not help Hernandez in any real way, only getting him however much help he needed to produce net yardage and almost certainly accelerating his downfall by destroying his frontal lobe. Hernandez is yet another example of the sport’s unworthiness as a conduit for young men’s success in this country.