Exhibit A: Aaron Hernandez (By: Stephanie Falotico, LMSW)
I have finished watching the Netflix Limited Series, Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez. One word that easily comes to mind is heartbreaking. Not simply for Aaron Hernandez, but also for his victims, his victim's families, his family, his beautiful little girl, and his story. Aaron Hernandez's story should be used as a case study in mental health curriculum for years to come especially in the ever-growing practice of sport social work. I initially turned the series on to enjoy mindlessly, but does a therapist's mind ever really turn off? Before I could stop myself I was “A Beautiful Minding” it in my head with Genograms and Ecomaps, diagnostic criteria, strengths, and areas to focus treatment.
Not to give the whole series away, but to highlight some key points, Aaron's dad was a football star himself which fueled Aaron's apparent desire to be great. His dad was also an alcoholic who would get aggressive with everyone within the home. This led to his parents fighting and arguing daily and Aaron becoming a witness to domestic violence at a young age. His older brother was already a star football player at UCONN and there was an expectation, as early as age 14 that Aaron too would play at UCONN, like his father and older brother.
Furthermore, Aaron had reportedly been involved in a secret same sex relationship with a high school teammate and it was later revealed it was suspected Aaron was sexually abused as a child. At age 16, the rock, the idol, the role model of Aaron's life, his father, passed away unexpectedly in a routine operation. Not even a year later, his mother entered a relationship with one of Aaron's uncles. At age 17, Aaron decided to travel 1300 miles away from everything he knew and all the supports he had in Connecticut to play football at the University of Florida. Three years later, at only age 20, he was drafted by the New England Patriots.
Taking in all this information as I watched, I allowed myself to pause. How could no one in his life, his family, his friends, his high school teachers and coaches, not put two and two together? How had no one been able to see this silent rage building in the mind of this fragile, vulnerable, young teen? If all of these thoughts are coming to my mind in this short period of watching this series, who was giving pause to think about Aaron Hernandez the three years he was at the University of Florida or the three seasons he spent as a member of arguably the best professional football franchise?
It is nearly unfathomable to me how number 81 walked through different locker rooms, played on two of the biggest football stages, was around countless teammates, the best coaching staffs, training staff, hundreds of thousands of fans, and not a single person could see the world of hurt this bright young star was living through day in and day out. How heartbreaking is it, that someone who gained so much attention for his athletic abilities could not be seen by the ones who needed to see him most? He needed someone to recognize he was off; that something was not right. His life, his destructive behaviors and decisions, were a continuous plea for help. No one heard his silent and not so silent cries. No pun intended, but for crying out loud, this man supposedly killed two people, and a month later was given a five-year, $40 million dollar NFL contract.
Watching the footage of his court hearings for his murder trials I could see the lack of emotional response, the blank stares, and the flat affect. But then again, that is what I am trained to do. I have been specifically trained and educated to recognize and treat signs of mental health disorders and I make a living doing just that. Was there really no one around Aaron Hernandez, in high school, in college, in Boston, specifically trained to notice? Was there no one on the payroll of these elite staffs getting paid to watch his most basic human behavior? There were plenty of people watching Aaron Hernandez the young, talented, football superstar, but who was there watching young, angry, emotionally constricted, Aaron Hernandez?
What if there had been a trained mental health professional on the practice fields, the sidelines of games, within the organizations meeting with the players regularly? What if there was a trained mental health professional who trained the coaching staff to notice signs of mental health distress in their players? Who, in Aaron's short 27 years of life, was ever there to ask him if he was okay? Someone there to validate his inwardly and outwardly expressed feelings of anger. Someone to affirm that how he was feeling was okay and guide him on how to deal with those feelings in a healthy and safe way.
I will argue no one. I cannot say that there was no one in Aaron's life who cared, but there appears to have been no one in his life who cared enough or who was aware of mental health symptoms to offer or connect him with the help he truly needed. Of all the people who were interviewed throughout the series, there was not a single mental health professional identified who had worked directly with Aaron Hernandez.
Aaron Hernandez's story is tragic, and heartbreaking, and I would like to argue that perhaps it could have been avoided. The lives he took, including his own, could very well still be walking this earth. Although some argue the severe CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy) that Aaron Hernandez was exposed to was the cause of most of his behaviors. However, that can be the topic of another blog post. Being someone who has studied neurofeedback and understands the brain and effects of concussion on behavior, I agree that the CTE had something to do with it. But his football career was likely the fuel added to the already burning fire in his mind. His first 17 years of life growing up in unstable environments and his lack of appropriate support were undoubtedly the oxygen, heat, and fuel to start the fire.
Although there has been a shift, and a new tide is turning, fiercer conversations and a continued push for mental health professionals in athletic departments and general athletic realms, needs to be had. The need is great, the need is now, and it is across the span from youth through professional sports. If the story of every other athlete who has taken their own lives, been involved in domestic violence, drank themselves to death are not starting points, well then start with Exhibit
A: Aaron Hernandez.
How many other Aaron Hernandez’s are out on our playing fields across the world right now? How many other players are using their respective sports as smoke screens and are slipping through the cracks? How many more ticking time bombs are going unnoticed because there is no one there trained to spot the smoke? Which athlete is going to take their own life or the life of another next because they simply are not given the opportunity to properly process and cope with their demons? The question is not, “who is this going to happen to next?” Unfortunately, the question is, “when?”