USA Today’s Nancy Armour says that the revelation that Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end who killed himself in prison after being convicted of murder, suffered from severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) will shake the NFL to its core — and it should.
It was easy to absolve football when it is players in their 60s and 70s whose memories and personalities had disappeared, turning them into people their loved ones barely recognized when they died. There’s no definitive link, the NFL would say, alluding to a host of other environmental and lifestyle factors that might have played a role.
Even when it was Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, taking their lives in their 40s and 50s because their addled brains were already making their lives hell and they knew there was more to come, the NFL managed to tap dance around football’s responsibility. Tragic, but there are still so many unanswered questions, we’ve heard time and time and time again. More research is needed on genetics and mental illness and, well, anything else that might gum up the debate….
But a 27 year old? The NFL is going to own that whether it wants to or not.
The NFL spends considerable time and resources every year to reassure worried parents that it’s OK to let their kids play football at the youth level. But the news about Hernandez will only ratchet up the fear, making parents wonder if they’re consigning their kids to a jail cell or the morgue by allowing them to play.
As I predicted years ago when I started discussing the work of researchers like Dr. Bennet Amalu and Dr. Ann McKee, we’ve already seen a dramatic drop-off in the number of young kids playing organized football. That means fewer players interested in risking their brains to play the game professionally later on.
And there are quite a few fans — myself included — who just don’t get as much joy from watching the NFL as we used to. That’s a part of the reason the league’s TV ratings started slipping several years ago. Stories like this, from respected sports columnists like Armour, are only going to continue to dent the NFL’s image going forward.