By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Maybe it’s a function of the modern times, or maybe it’s an inherent flaw in our existence as human beings, but there seems to be a rushed desire these days to boil every bit of news down to a single, easily-digestible sentence.
And in the immediate aftermath of Thursday’s news about Aaron Hernandez’s advanced stage of CTE and his lawsuit against the Patriots and the NFL, this routine held true. Some headlines — “Aaron Hernandez had CTE and that’s a huge problem for NFL” from USA Today — reached instantly premature conclusions. Stephen A. Smith yelled about it on ESPN as if he was arguing about Phil Jackson’s failures with the Knicks. And the flood of reactions and opinions on Twitter was not exactly a forum for exchanging reasoned ideas so much as it was a virtual platform for as many people to shout as many opinions as possible at the same time. There wasn’t a tremendous level of listening or thought.
In spotlighting just the headlines instead of some of the nuanced points made around the country, I am admittedly proliferating the problem here. But the point stands that these days, the headlines have in many ways become the news.
We need not try to examine every possible reason for that current reality, but we can look at this particular situation and recognize that it all can’t be boiled down into one simple statement.
Was Aaron Hernandez severely brain damaged? Absolutely — this is not up for debate. Science is real.
Did football cause a significant portion of that damage? That seems to be a safe assertion, though those who oppose the developments of science in that area will continue to diminish the possibility. In any event, it is known that as a football player, Hernandez endured more contact to his brain than the average citizen.
Did the significant brain damage have an effect on Hernandez’s behavior? Did it likely factor into the poor planning and decision-making that led to him being accused of three murders and convicted of one? It very likely did.
Does any of that absolve Hernandez of his crimes and thus turn him into a victim? It does not.
Is there necessarily a correlation between CTE and immoral behavior? No.
On the football side, is the league now destined to be taken down by the latest developments? Hardly.
Does the discovery of advanced CTE inside the brain of such a young football player add to the research that is troubling for the future of the sport? Absolutely.
Do we all need to immediately stop watching the sport? We do not — though we may be forced to think and self-analyze some things we generally don’t head to sports to do.
Does any of this mean that the lawsuit filed by his family has any chance of proving anything in a field of science where proof is thus far nearly impossible to provide? It does not.
It is possible to hold all of these thoughts simultaneously, while understanding the complexities of every aspect. And that’s all without even addressing the psychological factors that influenced Hernandez to take his own life. (In general, based on observations of suicides that make the news, the American public does not process news of suicides in a very sophisticated manner.)
Hernandez spoke to his lawyer on April 18 and said he was “looking forward to his future.” The very next day, he committed suicide.
Attempting to understand what might have inspired that decision is a worthwhile human endeavor. And if the repeated head trauma endured while playing football played a major role in his judgment, that’s something we should aspire to know.
That should not be considered a controversial or upsetting point of view.
Yet it seems that these days, rather than digesting news and contemplating its significance, there’s a need now to react based on feelings and gut reactions. In the day-to-day world of sports, this is sensible. It is an industry unto itself. But on the topic of a brain-damaged convicted murderer who killed himself — a subject of much more significance — that behavior is not just careless but also a poor use of time.
We also, in general, tend to take comfort in demonizing others without fully considering the “why” of a person’s criminal behavior. It is possible that some criminals are simply “bad people.” It’s likewise possible that a multitude of factors could influence someone to behave in ways they might not otherwise behave. Steadfastly believing just one of those statements requires little to no effort; believing in the other requires some logical exercise.
To hold a desire to discover more about those factors is not to necessarily sympathize with the accused but rather a belief that progress can be made in the very complicated field of understanding how the human brain works. We know exponentially more information today than we knew five years ago and certainly 15 years ago, and the hope is that 15 years from now we know much more. This story will contribute to that development.
Understandably, a headline stating “New Information Available, But Impact Won’t Be Fully Known For Years To Come” might not attract a large number of readers. And given the standard human interest in conflict and sagas, it’s only natural that the lawsuit filed by the Hernandez family overshadowed this aspect of the news and will continue to draw a significant level of attention going forward.
It’s just that in some cases, it feels as though some people want to treat the situation like we’re debating the greatest basketball player of all time or who the starting quarterback should be on Sunday. There is no simple, one-line statement that can be made to cover the relevant aspects of the matter at hand.
It’s not particularly fun, and it’s not particularly easy. In fact, it’s incredibly complex. Nobody has the answers, but too many are quick to pretend that they do.