Aaron Hernandez Suffered From ‘Severe’ Case Of C.T.E. At Time Of Death, Report Says

Former N.F.L. player, and convicted murderer, Aaron Hernandez suffered from a severe case of C.T.E. at the time of his death according to a post-mortem brain study.

C.T.E. Helmet

Former New England Patriots TIght End Aaron Hernandez, who was convicted of murder in April 2015 and committed suicide in his jail cell in April of this year, was suffering from a severe case of the degenerative brain disease that has been linked to concussions among former N.F.L. stars in recent years:

The brain scan came as a surprise even to researchers who for years have been studying the relationship between brain disease and deaths of professional football players.

Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end and a convicted murderer, was 27 when he committed suicide in April. Yet a posthumous examination of his brain showed he had such a severe form of the degenerative brain disease C.T.E. that the damage was akin to that of players well into their 60s.

It was, a lawyer for his family said, in announcing the findings on Thursday, “the most severe case they had ever seen in someone of Aaron’s age.”

C.T.E., or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, has been found in more than 100 former N.F.L. players, some of whom committed suicide, according to researchers at Boston University.

Yet the results of the study of Mr. Hernandez’s brain are adding another dimension to his meteoric rise and fall that could raise questions about the root of his erratic, violent behavior and lead to a potentially tangled legal fight with the N.F.L., the most powerful sports league in the United States.

The league had already faced public relations problems after other high-profile players were found to have C.T.E., including Junior Seau, Ken Stabler and Frank Gifford. Mr. Seau — along with Dave Duerson, Andre Waters and Ray Easterling, among others — killed himself.

For years, Mr. Hernandez was held up as a particularly egregious example of N.F.L. players running amok off the field.

Just 10 months after he signed a $40 million contract with the Patriots in 2013, with the promise of becoming a superstar, the body of a friend who had been shot multiple times was discovered. Mr. Hernandez was convicted of the friend’s murder, and later accused in two other killings from 2012. Just days after an acquittal in that case, he hanged himself with a bedsheet in his prison cell.

The researchers did not make a direct link between Mr. Hernandez’s violence and his disease.

But C.T.E. is often marked by problems with controlling aggression and impulses, and some degree of dementia, as well as mood swings, lapses in judgment and a disorganized manner.

Mr. Hernandez’s estate filed a federal lawsuit on Thursday against the N.F.L. and the Patriots seeking damages to compensate his 4-year-old daughter for the loss of her father. The suit alleges that the league and the team knew that repeated head hits could lead to brain disease, yet did not do enough to protect Mr. Hernandez from those hits.

The lawyer, Jose Baez, said the family was also contemplating suing the N.C.A.A. and the University of Florida, where Mr. Hernandez played before playing for the Patriots.

The N.F.L. did not comment on the medical finding, and it declined to comment on the suit. The Patriots declined to comment. Soon after his arrest in 2013, the team distanced itself from him, buying back more than 1,200 Hernandez jerseys from fans.

The trauma to Mr. Hernandez’s brain raises fresh questions about the dangers of playing tackle football. This week, other researchers at Boston University published research that found that adults who began playing tackle football before they were 12 years old developed more cognitive and behavioral problems later in life than those players who started tackle football after they reached that age.

Mr. Hernandez played football as a teenager, and in 2013 was given the Inspiration to Youth Award by Pop Warner, the best-known youth football organization in the country.

The fact that Mr. Hernandez also led a troubled life off the field will complicate the N.F.L.’s efforts to calm jitters about the sport because it will probably make some people wonder whether football had a role in his violence away from the game.

Mr. Baez said that in hindsight, Mr. Hernandez’s family had witnessed him act in ways that were consistent with a person found to have C.T.E., “but you don’t know.”

The slides of Mr. Hernandez’s brain samples were unambiguous and graphic.

Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System and director of the CTE Center at Boston University, examined his brain and said in a statement that Mr. Hernandez had “early brain atrophy” and “large perforations in the septum pellucidum, a central membrane” of the brain. The slides also showed what she called “classic features of C.T.E. in the brain,” including deposits of tau protein in the front lobes of the brain in nerve cells around small blood vessels.

Two years ago, Hernandez was convicted of the murder of a close friend in 2013 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, thus bringing an end to a saga that had started when Hernandez joined the Patriots after a controversial tenure at the University of Florida that included behavioral issues and criminal problems, but nothing approaching the level of violence he had been accused of in the Lloyd case. Roughly a year after that conviction, Hernandez was indicted in the murder of two other Boston area men, a case that finally went to trial earlier this year. Just one day short of his conviction in the Lloyd case, Hernandez was found not guilty in that double homicide case but nonetheless returned to prison to serve the remainder of his sentence in the Lloyd case. Only days after that acquittal, Hernandez was found dead via suicide in his jail cell and, thanks to a quirk in Massachusetts law, his conviction in the Lloyd case was vacated upon his death. The revelation that he suffered from C.T.E., of course, will add further ammunition to the debate about safety in football and other sports where head trauma is a significant risk.

As a preliminary matter, it’s worth noting that the fact that Hernandez suffered from C.T.E. does not in any way undermine his culpability in the murder of which he was convicted. However, had it been known at the time of his trial that he was suffering from this disease it’s possible that his attorneys could have convinced a jury that he should be found guilty of some lesser charge, or to work out a plea agreement that might have included a plea to a lesser charge. While our knowledge of C.T.E. is still limited, it is known that it tends to have an impact on impulse control and has often been linked to violent outbursts in those who have been found after their deaths to have been suffering from it. Under the law, this potentially means that Hernandez could have argued in court that he should not be convicted of murder due to the impact that the illness was having on him and his ability to control his violent impulses. Unfortunately for Hernandez, it was certainly the case at the time of the trial, and largely remains the case today, that C.T.E. is a disease that cannot be properly diagnosed without the kind of examination of the brain that is only possible after death. In any case, even if his attorneys could have proven that he suffered from C.T.E. and that this somehow contributed to what happened in the Lloyd case, it most likely would have been seen as not grounds for complete acquittal, but rather grounds to convict him of some lesser charge or perhaps to mitigate the sentence he received upon conviction.

Leaving aside, the implications that this news might have had for Hernandez’s case itself, though, this is yet another piece of evidence that has mounted in the past several years regarding the impact of long-term exposure to head trauma among football players. In the last several years, for example, we’ve seen a number of former NFL stars who were diagnosed with the disease after their death. Perhaps the most notable recent example was NFL great Frank Gifford, who died in August 2015 at the age of 84. Several months later, Gifford’s family revealed that post-mortem studies revealed that Gifford, who played in an era when head protection was far less than it is today and was once involved in a notable play involving a hit to the head that left him unable to play for more than a year,  was suffering from C.T.E. at the time of his death. While there was no accusation that Gifford’s death at an advanced age had anything to do with C.T.E., he joined a number of other former NFL players, including Junior Seau, Ken Stabler, Dave Duerson, Andre Waters, and Ray Easterling, who were also found to be suffering from the disease. Several of these men, including Seau, Duerson, Waters, and Easterling committed suicide later in life.

The news about Hernandez also comes just days after the release of a report that tied playing tackle football before the age of 12 to brain problems later in life:

Athletes who began playing tackle football before the age of 12 had more behavioral and cognitive problems later in life than those who started playing after they turned 12, a new study released on Tuesday showed.

The findings, from a long-term study conducted by researchers at Boston University, are likely to add to the debate over when, or even if, children should be allowed to begin playing tackle football.

The results of the study by researchers at Boston University, published in the journal Nature’s Translational Psychiatry, was based on a sample of 214 former players, with an average age of 51. Of those, 43 played through high school, 103 played through college and the remaining 68 played in the N.F.L.

In phone interviews and online surveys, the researchers found that players in all three groups who participated in youth football before the age of 12 had a twofold “risk of problems with behavioral regulation, apathy and executive function” and a threefold risk of “clinically elevated depression scores.”

“The brain is going through this incredible time of growth between the years of 10 and 12, and if you subject that developing brain to repetitive head impacts, it may cause problems later in life,” Robert Stern, one of the authors of the study, said of the findings.

The study is consistent with earlier findings by Stern and others that looked specifically at N.F.L. retirees. That research found that retirees who started playing before 12 years old had diminished mental flexibility compared to those who began playing tackle football at 12 or older.

A growing number of scientists argue that because the human brain develops rapidly at young ages, especially between 10 and 12, children should not play tackle football until their teenage years.

Last year, doctors at Wake Forest School of Medicine used advanced magnetic resonance imaging technology to find that boys between the ages of 8 and 13 who played just one season of tackle football had diminished brain function in parts of their brains.

The N.F.L., which long denied that there was any link between the game and brain damage, has in recent years been promoting what it considers safer tackling techniques aimed at reducing head-to-head collisions.

More recently, the league has been promoting flag football as an even safer alternative, an implicit acknowledgment that parents are worried about the dangers of the sport and turning away from it.

Participation in tackle football by boys ages 6 to 12 has fallen by nearly 20 percent since 2009, though it rose 1.2 percent, to 1.23 million, in 2015, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.


Schools across the country have shut their tackle football programs because of safety concerns and a shortage of players. Large numbers of children have shifted to other sports like flag football, soccer, baseball and lacrosse.

The new Boston University study looked only at behavioral changes, based on the phone and online surveys.

There was no examination of physical changes in the brain. (A separate study published by researchers at Boston University in July found that 110 out of 111 brains of deceased former N.F.L. players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease.)

Still, the findings are yet more evidence that have contributed to an existential crisis for the game, from youth leagues to the N.F.L. Pop Warner, the most established youth football organization in the country, has reduced the amount of contact in practice – where the majority of head hits occur – and changed game rules, including banning kickoffs, one of the most dangerous plays in the game.

Jon Butler, the executive director of Pop Warner, said in a statement that the sport has changed significantly for the better since the players in the Boston University study participated decades ago. He said the organization’s medical advisory committee will review the study and “compare it against the number of recent studies that contradict these findings.”

Pop Warner is facing a class-action lawsuit asserting that it knowingly put players in danger by ignoring the risks of head trauma.

Last year, the Ivy League decided to eliminate tackling at practices during the regular season. The Canadian Football League made a similar announcement last week.

There have been, of course, thousands upon thousands of people who have played tackle football or suffered concussions without developing C.T.E. or without it having any only noticeable impact on their lives. At the same time, though, the evidence that has mounted in recent years seems to make it undeniable that long-term exposure to the types of hard hits and head impacts that have become an inherent part of the game can have a serious impact on brain development, behavior, and memory. Until recently, neither the N.F.L. nor any of the other governing bodies seemed willing to recognize these links and even attempt to do something to deal with their impact. The more this becomes public knowledge, though, the harder the link is to deny.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Timothy Watson says:

    Wrestler Chris Benoit was also diagnosed with CTE after the double-murder of his family and his suicide.

  2. Stormy Dragon says:

    There was no examination of physical changes in the brain. (A separate study published by researchers at Boston University in July found that 110 out of 111 brains of deceased former N.F.L. players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease.)

    I would make one quibble here and point out that this study has a big self-selection bias problem in that the brains were all donated by families of players diagnosed with dementia before they died. The fact that brains of dementia patients all show signs of brain disease isn’t exactly a revelation.

    This isn’t rejecting the CTE issue, but we’d need a more random sample of NFL players to assess the extent of the problem. What do the brains of former NFL players that don’t end up getting diagnosed with dementia look like?

  3. Slugger says:

    Chicken or the egg? It seems to me that to be successful at the highest levels in many professional sports-football, boxing, basketball, downhill skiing, automobile racing- one must disregard caution and prudence. When this aggressive behavior is combined with the exemptions from social sanctions that many young athletes get, then we should expect antisocial behavior. I am not saying that repetitive trauma does not injure brains; I’m sure it does. What I am saying is that outstanding young athletes get rewarded for risky behavior and get special consideration for transgressions which may lead to crimes and brain bashing rather than brain disfunction leading to crime and selfdestruction. Which way does causality run?

  4. Stormy Dragon says:


    I wrestled for a year in junior high, but ended up giving it up when I realized that I simply don’t enjoy hurting other people and to succeed at wrestling you on some level need to.

  5. Tyrell says:

    Obviously there needs to be more study and a large database of football players and other sports to compare and to get a more accurate overview: ice hockey, wrestling, boxing/mms, car racing, baseball, basketball, tennis, soccer, golf, bowling.
    But the NFL, NCAA, and schools need to be doing some serious thinking: rules changes, helmet changes, or something else.
    I would get a physics professor and a brain- head trauma specialist together and see what they can come up with.

  6. CET says:

    A comment and a question:

    Comment – it’s interesting that you’re running this article around the same time that college football had one of it’s more lethal weekends. It’s quite the blood-sport we have going in this country…

    Question – This part:

    In any case, even if his attorneys could have proven that he suffered from C.T.E. and that this somehow contributed to what happened in the Lloyd case, it most likely would have been seen as not grounds for complete acquittal, but rather grounds to convict him of some lesser charge or perhaps to mitigate the sentence he received upon conviction.

    This makes absolutely no sense to me from a pragmatic perspective. Does the requirement for mens rea really mean that in a case like this, the presence of a condition that makes the person more likely to re-offend can be used as a way to reduce their sentence? I would have assumed that we’d be talking about a de facto life sentence in ‘treatment’ rather than in prison….

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    This certainly sounds familiar:

    Until recently, neither the N.F.L. nor any of the other governing bodies seemed willing to recognize these links and even attempt to do something to deal with their impact. The more this becomes public knowledge, though, the harder the link is to deny.

    To-cough cough-bacco!

    As long as suffering is profitable, somebody will make a grab for the blood money.

  8. michael reynolds says:

    1) I note without implying anything nefarious, that Doug Mataconis is a baseball fanatic. Just sayin’.

    2) I know we need circuses to keep the masses from doing anything like, say, reading books, but I have never understood the attraction of sports. I cannot imagine feeling loyalty to a gaggle of millionaire jocks who have zero connection to whatever city I’m supposed to be rooting for. Do whatever you want with your little ball, why in God’s name would I care?

    3) I think we could have all guessed that ramming your head into another guy’s helmet wasn’t going to exactly be healthy. Players should all be informed of the dangers. Then, if they want brain damage, have at it. I don’t think we’re risking a lot of Stephen Hawkings on an NFL offensive line.

    4) Legal culpability is a decision we make, it’s not handed down from the Flying Spaghetti Monster. There is an increasingly wide gap opening up between medical/biological science and our moral codes. Guilt is slipperier than most people want to admit. If a schizophrenic is not guilty, then is it not logical to extrapolate to diminished responsibility for people with head trauma?

  9. Mister Bluster says:

    In other healthcare news:
    McCain to oppose Graham-Cassidy, likely sinking Obamacare repeal
    “I take no pleasure in announcing my opposition. Far from it,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said.

  10. Franklin says:

    I am hoping science can save football by reducing concussions in the future. While I’ve read different opinions on the subject, I am currently optimistic that it can be done without ridiculous over-sized helmets. The “Q-Collar” is promising, for example, but there are also some helmet ideas being tested that can apparently reduce just the right impact frequencies. There’s also some suggestions that better tackling techniques can alleviate the problem.

    What I *don’t* believe is that the non-sense ‘targeting’ penalties being randomly handed out are doing anything. Most of them are just a case of one player not perfectly predicting where another player will be and accidentally making helmet contact in some form or another. The inability to predict how another player will fall down is a direct function of the chaos that happens when multiple players are flailing into each other at the same time.

  11. KM says:

    @michael reynolds:

    but I have never understood the attraction of sports.

    I’ve never understood the thrill of *watching* sports. Participating in them is fantastic, observing not so much. I always find it hilarious people want to come watch fencing practice, thinking they’re going to witness some serious swashbuckling entertainment. Most of us who are actually *doing* the fencing can’t be bothered to pay attention to the other matches because it turns out swordfighting is kinda boring if you’re not the one doing the stabbing.

    That things like golf, snowboarding and tennis get live coverage never ceases to amaze me. We as a species really will watch anything rather then get up off our butts to actually engage in the activity in question.

    Players should all be informed of the dangers.

    You’d be surprised at how many don’t believe the health and safety warnings. They honestly don’t think they’re going to get hurt or experience damage doing something inherently dangerous. Lesson number one for fencing is to stand there in minimal gear and let us stab you. Frankly, it’s to see if you can tolerate the sensation. Quite a few prospects realize it’s not all fun and games – you can get some serious bruising or injuries that require an ER trip. It’s a sport stylized from a form of combat so of course it’s going to hurt if you get hit hard. My first few years of training, I got asked every summer if I was being abused from the sheer number of marks up my arms and legs. That’s what happens when it goes *right*, now imagine when it goes wrong.

    Young men playing football aren’t listening to the warnings. They think they’re invulnerable like everyone their age. By the time they’ve gotten to the NFL, damage has already been done. Blaming the NFL for this kind of thing is a cop-out. These players have had their brains rattling around for at least 4-10 years before they ever don an NFL jersey. By the time they care, it’s way, way too late.

  12. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @michael reynolds: “I know we need circuses to keep the masses from doing anything like, say, reading books…”

    I beg to differ, all we need to do to keep the masses from reading books is not teach them to read, and many school districts in many states seem to be engaged in this pursuit even as we speak.

  13. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Mister Bluster: I don’t care whether he enjoys opposing the bill or not as long as he keeps his word and votes against it.

  14. michael reynolds says:


    My daughter did some fencing for a while, so I did some watching: you’re right, it’s not exactly the great Montoya v. Dread Pirate Roberts scene from Princess Bride. Damn fencers refused to turn somersaults or even toss off a quotable quip.

    Young men playing football aren’t listening to the warnings.

    If I were a hypocrite I’d tut tut, but I think ‘young man not listening to warnings’ could be the short description of my life from age 16 to about 35. After that I matured into a ‘middle-aged man not listening to warnings.’ Now I’m elderly (63) with a fat stogie stuck in my mouth, so. . .

  15. michael reynolds says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker:
    Don’t even start. I get high blood pressure seeing how they handle reading. ‘Read, read, read!’ followed immediately by, ‘not that… or that… or that.”

    The very best way to encourage reading is to make it as unpleasant as possible. Read, but only boring crap that will make you long for the sweet release of TV.

  16. @CET:

    No, but the argument that they lacked impulse control due to a medical condition would have been relevant evidence for the defense. Whether it would have been successful in either reducing the charge of which Hernandez convicted or a reduction of his sentence is something I cannot predict as that would have been up to the Judge (to determine if the evidence would even be admissible) and the jury (to weigh the evidence and any relevant expert testimony)

  17. @michael reynolds:

    I also follow football on both the College and NFL level for what it’s worth. Admittedly, though, I’m becoming increasingly clear that there are things about the way football is played that are making this kind of brain trauma more likely than it appears to be in other sports.

    As one friend of mine pointed on on social media recently, you don’t see nearly as much evidence of concussions in rugby, even though it’s an arguably rougher sport in many ways.

  18. Argon says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I wrestled for a year in junior high, but ended up giving it up when I realized that I simply don’t enjoy hurting other people and to succeed at wrestling you on some level need to.

    I wrestled through middle and high school. I don’t recall either inflicting such pain or having such pain inflicted upon me. I was used to being put in holds I didn’t have the strength to resist, but seldom any that were extremely painful. YMMV.

    A few years ago I did rip a calf muscle playing with my dog in the backyard and *that* hurt like a MF.

  19. KM says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Damn fencers refused to turn somersaults or even toss off a quotable quip.

    Clearly, you were at the wrong club 🙂 Can’t promise you a backflip but we do specialize in passata-sotto, which when done right looks a like a superhero landing with your butt grazing the floor and slides you right under the blade to stab them somewhere quite unfortunate. Since not all the guys in club remember to wear a cup, it can cause some entertaining drama for the audience. We also do quips and debates mid-match when it’s just practice – we wouldn’t be the nerds we are if we couldn’t bitch about politics, coding or the latest Destiny 2 release while trying to maim each other. Sure, I’d have less bruises if I actually paid attention to the hunk of metal swinging towards my face but the bon mot takes precedence.

    I promise we’ll do our best to put on a good show if you’re ever in the area.

    great Montoya v. Dread Pirate Roberts scene from Princess Bride.

    The best part about that scene? Those are basic drills they just sped up. It’s what we teach the newbies. Every fencer can do that – we just can’t make it look epic. Alas, Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin are needed for that.

  20. KM says:

    @Doug Mataconis :

    But how would one go about proving it in court? I was under the impression CTE couldn’t be conclusively proven until autopsy. Theoretically, what sort of evidence would the court accept for a diagnosis that is unconfirmed?

  21. @KM:

    Yes, that’s the complicating factor at this point. I have read that there has been some progress in developing ways of detecting the disease in a living person, but I’m not sure what the status of that is. Additionally, even if you could detect it I’m not aware of any viable treatments at this point, although one article I read not long ago suggested that some of the drugs being used to treat Alzheimer’s Disease could prove effective in treating some of the degenerative aspects of CTE.

  22. michael reynolds says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    That’s a good point of comparison. Rugby’s not for wimps.

  23. teve tory says:

    I don’t think we’re risking a lot of Stephen Hawkings on an NFL offensive line.

    There are more than you might guess. Ravens player battling for starting job retires from NFL to finish Ph.D at MIT

  24. Anonne says:

    It may be that the lack of helmet protection in rugby induces people to not use their heads to spear and also changes the way that they tackle each other.

  25. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I have 12 nieces and nephews. I’m exceedingly glad that only one of them played football, and he switched over to golf early on because he plans to go into finance and wants to be where deals are made (not even joking).

    Golf, wrestling, basketball, soccer, and tennis are the go to sports among them. Thankfully.

  26. Hal_10000 says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    An educated guess at the reason we don’t see this in rugby, from talking to the many rugby players I knew back in college:

    1) Rugby players aren’t roided up, built up to monstrous proportions and routinely injected with painkillers. NFL players are.

    2) The lack of pads in rugby might actually be a good thing. A college roommate played both and said the pads make you feel indestructible, whereas in rugby you react defensively to a potential hit. So you get more cosmetic damage (bruises, cauliflower ears, battered nose) but you would never race at someone as fast as you can and launch yourself head first at them.

    I note the study you cited of 12 y/o’s. I suspect a LOT of this CTE is happening very early on — high school or even younger. Hernandez was only 27 and had been showing sign of misbehavior since college. It’s likely that most of the damage was done at a very young age when his brain was still developing. I think states need to look very hard at banning or severely limiting contact football for youngsters.

    I also suspect that there is a range here. We know, for example, that some players’ knees can take way more punishment than others. I suspect this is true of the brain as well. One thing the NFL could do is throw money into research to find a way to identify CTE damage in living players so that they can be alerted when they are in the early stages. This isn’t currently doable but doesn’t seem impossible.

  27. JohnMcC says:

    @Doug Mataconis: When I was a lacrosse player (and dinosaurs roamed) I envied the Rugby Club guys ’cause of their bumper sticker: It Takes Leather Balls To Play Rugby.

    All we got was ‘fastest game on foot’. Obviously coined by a hockey player.