clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Netflix’s flawed Aaron Hernandez documentary raises more questions than it answers

Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez remains on the outside of its story.

Aaron Hernandez Court Appearance
Aaron Hernandez sits in court in 2013 in North Attleboro, Massachusetts.
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Aaron Hernandez, once the New England Patriots’ rising star, scored a Super Bowl touchdown in 2012, when he was just 22. In theory, that’s a very young age for any football player to achieve the Super Bowl milestone; in reality, it may have been half a decade into the development of a career-long, debilitating brain disease, discovered after his death, that may have influenced Hernandez’s later decision to murder one of his best friends.

The documentary series Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, which debuted on Netflix on January 15, keeps this information from viewers until the very end. Instead, it opens with news footage about the 2013 murder of 27-year-old Odin Lloyd. This killing led Boston police to link its main suspect, Hernandez, then a star football player for the Patriots, to the 2012 deaths of two other murder victims. The investigation sparked a widely publicized downward spiral for Hernandez, concluding with his death by suicide in 2017 while serving a life sentence for Lloyd’s murder.

For many reasons, Hernandez is not the typical subject of a true crime documentary; he’s no Ted Bundy, a monstrous figure presiding over his own image rehabilitation. He was a mixed-race, allegedly queer survivor of lifelong abuse, maintaining a legendary sports career that was also destroying his brain.

Even leaving aside his football-induced brain disease — chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE — Hernandez, as the much more effective 2018 Boston Globe podcast Gladiator explores, fell victim to a number of complicated factors that influenced his life, from his father’s toxic masculinity and its impact on Hernandez’s view of himself and his sexuality to the cold dehumanization of professional football and the New England Patriots in particular, whose staff routinely enabled Hernandez’s double life while ignoring his pleas for help.

There are a lot of layers here, and a documentary series focusing on Hernandez’s life and crimes could have taken a deep dive into any one of them with effective results. But Killer Inside opts for a more salacious approach. It works to present Hernandez as someone whose inherent darkness may have been exacerbated by his circumstances. The problem with this framing is that the series doesn’t have enough evidence to make a compelling case that Hernandez was always a violent, impulsive, reckless monster. So instead, it alternates between interviews with acquaintances who spin hearsay about him, unfocused courtroom footage, and often poignant jail cell voiceovers from Hernandez himself. (The voiceovers are from more than 900 calls that Hernandez made in jail, which were made public by police in 2018.) All the while, the question of whether Hernandez was gay protrudes uncomfortably into the narrative without much apparent purpose beyond titillation.

This question fuels the three-episode series; it’s an especially puzzling, probably unintentionally homophobic approach. The documentary frames football as Hernandez’s figurative “beard,” a socially accepted tool to protect his rumored sexual identity. And although it does try to paint Hernandez as the ironic victim of football-induced CTE, never for too long does it blame the gladiatorial football culture Hernandez spent his life within — even though it might be the closest thing to the true prime suspect in Hernandez’s case.

Killer Inside spends a lot of time focusing on Hernandez’s alleged sexuality, but never really justifies its speculation

Killer Inside quickly moves into odd territory. “Aaron Hernandez went from a 7,100-square foot mansion to a seven-by-10-foot jail cell, and moved in like it was no problem,” Yahoo Sports columnist Dan Wetzel, who produced the series, says early in the first episode. “That chilled even veteran corrections officers at the Bristol Jail.”

Really? Was that honestly a chilling detail?

Fifteen minutes later, the word “chilling” resurfaces again, this time in the description of football fans who briefly turned “Hernandez-ing” into a meme, mimicking Hernandez’s arrest pose (a shirt covered over his arms, as a body restraint), and an Instagram photo where he showed off a handgun. The implied dynamic, between player and murderer, between Instagram-ready celebrity and infamous internet meme, was supposedly “chilling,” too.

These early moments of prurience are slight, but they’re telling, because Killer Inside spends far less time on “the mind of Aaron Hernandez” — let alone his CTE-affected brain — than it does on trying to shock viewers, often by insisting things are shocking when they aren’t. It most frequently uses this tactic when it turns to speculation that Hernandez was gay.

The son of a harsh, disciplinary authoritarian who allegedly physically abused his children, Hernandez also said later in life that he was sexually molested as a child. Former friends and fellow high school football teammates say on camera that Hernandez had gay sexual relationships as a teen, and all of this information is presented with a hefty sprinkling of casual homophobic slurs — like when a former teammate describes Hernandez’s late father as the kind of dad who’d “slap the f****t right out of you” — and quotes from Hernandez’s recorded conversations in jail.

In phone call after phone call, we hear Hernandez mocking queer people, distancing himself from femme-presenting men, and deploying what’s clearly framed by Killer Inside as closeted denial. One conversation is particularly hurtful given its irrelevance to the topic of Hernandez’s life, sexuality, or crimes, but the documentary lets it roll for several minutes anyway: Hernandez, repeatedly refers to transgender people using dehumanizing and transphobic rhetoric, and insists on doing so over the objections of his girlfriend, who’s clearly upset with him for it.

The documentary reports that Hernandez was outed just days before his death, by a reporter who cracked homophobic jokes on a sports radio show. “You don’t out somebody for the sake of outing them,” Boston Globe reporter Maria Cramer says in the documentary. “Just because it’s salacious and interesting is not enough to do something like that to somebody.” But Killer Inside, while it doesn’t fully “out” Hernandez, goes far enough that it’s effectively a renewal of the rumors that outed him anyway — while heavily implying that fear of his sexuality being known is what led to Hernandez’s suicide.

And it makes those accusations sloppily and with an emphasis on homophobic elements that serve little purpose — except, perhaps, to hurt and discomfit queer and trans viewers, reminding us that our existence is easily written off with a few slurs.

What’s the point of this speculation? Critics of the documentary have found little; Hernandez’s relatives and friends have also downplayed it, with his lawyer calling the frequent references to Hernandez’s sexuality “irrelevant” and his brother claiming in a January 30 interview with The Dr. Oz Show that Hernandez did in fact come out to his mother before his death. Killer Inside insists repeatedly that Hernandez must have hated himself because he was gay, but despite all the tragic atmosphere around this idea, it’s an assertion the documentary never even really comes close to proving.

The documentary sidesteps probing the real causes of Hernandez’s tragic downfall

A researcher reveals the findings of Aaron Hernandez’s brain autopsy, showing cells ravaged by CTE.

The justification for outing Hernandez in the first place lay within a very thin argument: that the subject of Hernandez’s queerness might point to a motive for Lloyd’s mysterious murder. After all, Lloyd, a semi-pro football player who seemed to be beloved in his local community, was a close friend of Hernandez right up until Hernandez took him for a drive one night and shot him multiple times on June 17, 2013. Perhaps, the documentary briefly suggests, Lloyd’s knowledge of Hernandez’s personal life made him a target.

But it’s such a strange path — to murder someone, risking a record-breaking, $40 million annual contract with the most successful football team in recent memory, just to avoid suspicion of being gay. It’s so strange, in fact, that it’s unlikely — and indeed the documentary later thoroughly debunks this idea as purely speculative.

It seems more likely, if any motive beyond CTE-fueled aggression can be attributed to Hernandez’s actions, that Lloyd may have found out about Hernandez’s possible connection to the previous 2012 double homicide. In that incident, an unknown man allegedly seen in Hernandez’s SUV had pulled up next to another vehicle and shot the two men, Daniel Correia de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, who were inside. Hernandez was ultimately acquitted, just days before his death, of the 2012 murders, largely because the prosecution’s main evidence that he fired the gun was based on hearsay from the only other chief suspect, a drug dealer.

But beyond implying that Hernandez’s friendship with said drug dealer might have played a role in both the 2012 and 2013 murders, the documentary has little time for plumbing any connections between them. Killer Inside is less interested in uncovering a motive for the murders than in creating a narrative that, as one of the star members of the Patriots franchise, Hernandez was isolated, unsupported, and unwieldy.

But in creating that narrative, Killer Inside doesn’t really seek to explore or explain how football culture may have helped or hurt that isolation. The series does draw attention to the numerous head injuries Hernandez sustained on the field — it even withholds until the end the heartbreaking reveal that even though he was just 27 when he died, Hernandez’s brain was completely impacted by CTE. At the press conference where the findings of his autopsy were announced, researcher Ann McKee speculated that the damage to Hernandez’s brain likely happened over a period as long as a decade. It was the most damage the researchers had ever found in the brain of someone so young.

The documentary does little to carry this point further; in fact, even though McKee is on record as saying that “individuals with CTE — and CTE of this severity — have difficulty with impulse control, decision-making, inhibition of impulses for aggression, emotional volatility, rage behaviors,” Killer Inside, after spending three episodes painting Hernandez as aggressive, impulsive, and emotionally volatile, takes pains to debunk the idea that CTE played any part in Hernandez’s decisions.

Instead, it quotes multiple people, including former pro football player Jermaine Wiggins, who insist that lots of football players probably have CTE but only one of them may have murdered three people. This is a pretty horrific argument, but it seems to be enough to keep the documentary’s most severe criticism — that the NFL itself treats its players as expendable, exploitable fodder for its physical battlefields — to a minimal conclusive footnote in its larger story.

Killer Inside does humanize Hernandez. But its efforts to do so also perpetuate the unfortunate narrative of the closeted, suffering queer man. Lingering questions about how and why Hernandez wasn’t given more mental and emotional support while he was a Patriot are never even broached. Neither are questions about how his sexuality, or perceptions of his sexuality, could have impacted his ability to receive emotional support on a tight-knit but very masculine NFL team. Then there’s the question, often referenced but never really focused on in much depth, of what sort of staff-administered medications and drugs the Patriots players were on, and how that might have impacted Hernandez’s overall well-being.

These are questions that could have given Killer Inside much-needed nuance, had they been well-explored. But we get very little sense of how the biggest element in Hernandez’s life — being a star player for the biggest team in the NFL — factored into his decisions.

After his 2013 arrest but before his conviction and sentencing, the Patriots refused to allow Hernandez back inside its home football stadium, forcing him, as well as the media, to remain outside. It seems that Killer Inside is, despite its title, still outside the stadium, and still on the outside of its story’s biggest mystery.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.