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A Criminal Mind? A Damaged Brain? Narratives of Criminality and Culpability in the Celebrated Case of Aaron Hernandez



This article examines the media discourse surrounding the life and death of former National Football League (NFL) player Aaron Hernandez, who died by suicide while incarcerated for first-degree murder. As a post-mortem analysis found evidence of notable degenerative brain disease, differing explanations and speculations remain about the causes of his criminal behavior. This analysis illustrates how journalistic narratives attribute Hernandez's criminality to either the material composition of his damaged brain or to how his tumultuous background affected his psychological makeup, minimizing the structural and political economic conditions that enabled this particular case of celebrated criminality. Cultural criminological and sociolegal insights aid in elucidating how notions of racialized masculinity and neurocriminology come to constitutively inform framings of Hernandez's crimes, motivations, and actions while also directing critical attention away from the influence of relevant institutions, particularly sport, and instrumentalizing the role of violence. This article concludes with a reflection on the underpinning tensions revealed through depictions of Hernandez, his mind, and his brain. We argue such concerns surpass news and media stories and actually implicate debates about the growing influence of neuroscience in understandings of social problems, including crime.
Crime Media Culture
2020, Vol. 16(3) 395 –413
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1741659019879888
A criminal mind? A damaged
brain? Narratives of criminality
and culpability in the celebrated
case of Aaron Hernandez
Kathryn Henne
The Australian National University, Australia; University of Waterloo, Canada
Matt Ventresca
University of Calgary, Canada
This article examines the media discourse surrounding the life and death of former National
Football League player Aaron Hernandez, who died by suicide while incarcerated for first-degree
murder. As a postmortem analysis found evidence of notable degenerative brain disease, differing
explanations and speculations remain about the causes of his criminal behavior. This analysis
illustrates how journalistic narratives attribute Hernandez’s criminality to either the material
composition of his damaged brain or how his tumultuous background affected psychological
makeup. Both narratives minimize the structural and political economic conditions that enabled
this particular case of celebrated criminality. Cultural criminological and socio-legal insights aid
in elucidating how notions of racialized masculinity and neurocriminology come to constitutively
inform framings of Hernandez’s crimes, motivations, and actions while also directing critical
attention away from the influence of relevant institutions, particularly sport, and instrumentalizing
the role of violence. This article concludes with a reflection on the underpinning tensions revealed
through depictions of Hernandez, his mind, and his brain, arguing that they surpass news and
media stories and actually implicate debates about the growing influence of neuroscience in
understandings of social problems, including crime.
Aaron Hernandez, celebrated criminality, masculinity, neuroscience, sport, traumatic brain injury
Corresponding author:
Kathryn Henne, School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet), The Australian National University, HC
Coombs Extension (Building 8), Fellows Road, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia.
879888CMC0010.1177/1741659019879888Crime, Media, CultureHenne and Ventresca
The life of former National Football League (NFL) player Aaron Hernandez is often characterized
as a cautionary tale of sport and violence. After a standout collegiate career at the University of
Florida, Hernandez spent 3 years as a member of the New England Patriots, during which he was
considered one of the NFLs most talented young superstars. In August 2012, he signed a 7-year,
US$40 million contract extension with the Patriots—one of the most lucrative deals for someone
of his age and playing position. Yet, in the first year of his new contract, Hernandez was arrested
for the killing of Odin Lloyd, the boyfriend of his fiancée’s sister. He was subsequently convicted
of first-degree murder in 2015 and sentenced to life in prison without parole. At the age of 27,
2 years into his life sentence, Hernandez died by suicide in his prison cell just days after being
found not guilty of separate double homicide charges associated with the 2012 killings of Daniel
de Abreu and Safiro Furtado.
Given his celebrity status and the shocking details of the murder cases, Hernandez became the
subject of intense media scrutiny and public commentary. This interest reflects a particular form
of “celebrated criminality,” which Ruth Penfold-Mounce (2009: 8) has coined to explain relation-
ships between the “cultural product of celebrity” and “the transgressive behavior of crime and
deviance.” Following her suggestion to use case studies to unpack these dynamics, this analysis
examines how the media coverage of events explained Hernandez’s violent acts, revealing two
distinct narratives. On one hand, writers cite Hernandez’s reputation as a player with a penchant
for finding trouble off the field, linking his violent acts to perceived “character issues,” histories
of drug use, and a cast of objectionable associates from his hometown of Bristol, Connecticut. On
the other, journalists and experts depict Hernandez’s criminality as resulting from severe brain
damage that had developed throughout his football career, warping his personality and limiting
his control over his emotional impulses. We illustrate how both narratives work to reduce complex
relationships between bodies, behaviors, and social relations to matters of “fact.” In doing so,
they suggest that the explanation for Hernandez’s criminal activities could be exclusively found in
either the material composition of his damaged brain or through excavation of how his tumultu-
ous background affected his psychological makeup.
Through the focus on Hernandez as the central actor in these narratives, he, a football player
from a working-class background, emerges as a criminal who could have become an American
success story—a narrative that has particular purchase in the context of men’s professional sport
(see Carrington, 2010; Montez de Oca, 2012)—but lacked the fortitude to do so. The stories
around Hernandez, although offering different explanations, reflect a key cultural dimension of
neoliberalism and its emphasis on market-based solutions and personal responsibility: a resulting
preoccupation with the individual, rather than structures, as the attributable source of his devi-
ance (Ericson etal., 2000). Both lines of reasoning direct attention away from the political eco-
nomic conditions that facilitated Hernandez’s celebrity status and criminal behavior.
Popular explanations of Hernandez’s behavior, although converging around a unique case,
offer a contemporary example of tensions that scholars of crime, law, and popular culture have
grappled with for more than 25 years. Richard Sherwin (1994: 47), for instance, states that efforts
to narrate truth are not as “easily divorced from fiction” as we might believe; rather, “fictional
models permeate factual discourse,” especially when explaining the role of persons implicated in
criminalized acts and legal processes. Building criminal cases relies on more than evidence; they
harness schemas and referential scripts to structure explanations in the absence of comprehensive
Henne and Ventresca 397
knowledge of crime-related events. The resulting tendency is to follow straightforward “casual-
linear” logics that draw on commonsensical beliefs and frameworks, which help “organize infor-
mation in a particular order or sequence” (p. 50) so as to overcome complexities and inconsistencies
surrounding cases. Michelle Brown and Nicole Rafter (2013) extend Sherwin’s point; they contend
popular culture is actually constitutive—and not simply reflective—of crime as we (think we) know
it. Popular culture is a public domain in which we not only engage and make sense of representa-
tions of crime, law, and social order, but also commit them to shared memory.
In this article, we build upon these observations by elucidating how both media narratives
about Hernandez’s crimes evoke essentialized accounts, even as they attempt to explain behaviors
in detailed and nuanced ways. First, journalists propose that Hernandez’s deviant acts were the
product of his upbringing and social environment, attributing his delinquency to his surroundings
and personal relationships. Yet these explanations draw largely on stereotypical depictions of life
in the urban “ghetto,” implicating the vices and depravity of “the street” as the logical source of
Hernandez’s violent tendencies. Second, the notion that football-related brain damage altered
Hernandez’s mental state to induce violent compulsions reproduces problematic logics of neuro-
criminology, a field that “adapts neuroscientific methods . . . to make claims about crime, devi-
ance, and aggression” and, in doing so, eschews social and environmental dimensions of crime in
favor of internal explanations (Fallin etal., 2018: 2). Critically examining these competing narra-
tives does not require uncovering indisputable “truths” about his life or determining what (or
who) was responsible for the events leading up to his death. As David Leonard (2017) writes, “to
reflect on the racial scripts and narratives directed at Aaron Hernandez is not about exonerating
him or getting into his guilt or innocence” (p. 92). Instead, such an analysis entails deconstructing
the production of truth claims in making sense of Hernandez’s actions and circumstances, which
is the aim of this article.
In the pages that follow, we outline how analysis of Hernandez’s life and death builds upon
and extends cultural criminological and socio-legal insights into the role of discourse, including
celebrity, in constructions of crime (see Penfold-Mounce, 2009). We then elaborate upon the two
narratives that emerge: (1) a subscription that social and environmental conditions contributed to
the cultivation of Hernandez’s criminal mind, and (2) the notion that he could not regulate his
behavior due to brain damage. After explaining both, we discuss how they operate to direct criti-
cal attention away from the influence of relevant institutions, particularly sport. We conclude by
reflecting on epistemological tensions revealed through the analysis, which we argue exceed
news and media stories and actually implicate debates about the growing influence of neurosci-
ence in understanding social problems, including crime.
Reading the texts of crime in the case of Aaron Hernandez
Attempts to make sense of Hernandez’s actions and motivations prior to his death reflect broader
tensions around how we come to know and understand crime. According to Alison Young (1996),
onlookers, including journalists and criminologists, never really “know” crime, because it is not so
much tangible as it “imagined.” By “imagined,” she refers to “the written and the pictorial: the
linguistic turns and tricks, the framing and editing devices in and through which crime becomes a
topic, obtains and retains its place in discourse” (Young, 1996: 16). Crime is thus “mediated as
text” (p. 16). As such, and despite attempts to categorize and deconstruct criminal acts, the
complex confluence of factors that contribute to actions and circumstances that become crime
are often beyond our grasp. Our knowledge of what makes crime “happen” is always partial and
incomplete. We therefore begin our inquiry into Hernandez’s crimes by recognizing they material-
ize through language, images, and ideas. In this particular case, our knowledge comes from
interpretations of narratives constituted through media representations of legal proceedings,
news and personal stories, and criminological practices.
The texts analyzed here reveal a co-mingling of evidence, including both scientific findings and
documented testimonials, with social categories of difference and sport-specific ideologies and
beliefs. We heed Jay Aronson and Simon Cole’s (2009: 606) advice that even though law often
“perpetuates a notion of ‘science’ as a category of knowledge characterized by epistemological
certainty,” it is important to query the authority attributed to science in these contexts, paying
particular attention to what kinds of science are rendered as purveyors of truth, as well as how,
when, and to what ends. The pursuit of truth is “a consequence of the ways different claims are
given credibility” (McMullen, 2007: 26) and is “almost always implicated in political and commu-
nicative processes involving perception, representation, and interpretation” (p. 23). With these
insights in mind, we maintain a critical focus on the intersectional dimensions of the media narra-
tives surrounding Hernandez, attending to how they selectively render some vectors of marginali-
zation visible (e.g. race, ethnicity, sexuality) while overlooking other considerations. Cultivating an
intersectional sensibility (see Han, 2006) is to approach “crime as a constitutive object.” That is,
rather than pursue “a complete picture of crime,” intersectionality embraced in this way “forces
us to confront race, gender, and crime as ghostly subjects with experiences we cannot know in
full” (Henne and Troshynski, 2013: 467).
We adapt an intersectional sensibility using Steven Woolgar and Javier Lezaun’s situated
approach to studying how objects come into being. Studying context, they contend, is “too
quickly . . . regarded as sufficient explanations of what is happening” (Woolgar and Lezaun,
2013: 327). Objects “cannot be accounted for by reference to the external circumstances of their
existence. Rather, objects are brought into being” and “crystallize, provisionally, a particular real-
ity” (pp. 323–324). Woolgar and Lezaun (2013) suggest analysis of the “organization of texts”
evinced through news stories and other media can shed light on these constitutive relations (p.
330). We thus examine Hernandez and his crimes as emerging differentially within and across
reports, coming into being as new developments, forms of evidence, and knowledge about his
past become fashioned and refashioned in and through narrative explanations.
To capture and unpack the ways in which Hernandez’s crimes come into being, we examined
112 news stories clustered around specific flashpoints in his life: his arrest (26 June 2013), trial and
conviction (August 2013 to April 2015), death (19 April 2017), and scientists’ announcement that
they had diagnosed him with a degenerative brain disease postmortem (9 November 2017). These
sources were collected through strategic online searches structured around date ranges corre-
sponding with the key events in Hernandez’s life story listed above. In doing so, we consider them
alongside other forms of popular culture they reference, such as the documentary film about his
life, Aaron Hernandez Uncovered. These inclusions are important, as Penfold-Mounce (2009: 3)
notes, because “media images . . . abound in number and type” conveying “reality and fiction
side by side and complicating interpretation, presentation and representation.” Accordingly, the
sample includes a range of mediated narratives. The examples presented in the sections that fol-
low best represent the two overarching narratives that emerged as our findings. As such, they
Henne and Ventresca 399
tend to be drawn from print media sources, but, even as written textual snapshots, they still reveal
how explanations of Hernandez’s acts of crime and deviance changed over time and the cultural
conditions that inform them.
A criminal mind: “football’s Al Capone”
Media coverage of Hernandez’s suicide reflects conflicted reactions to his death. Journalists often
invoke the language of tragedy but express ambivalence about how to respond to Hernandez’s
demise. Breer (2017), for example, writes in Sports Illustrated that Hernandez’s suicide “can’t easily
be characterized as a tragedy. A convicted killer taking his own life won’t elicit much sympathy
from the public, and quite honestly it shouldn’t.” Finn (2017), a writer for, similarly
asserts that “Aaron Hernandez is a tragedy, but a self-inflicted one . . . He did this, every last brutal
plot-twist, to himself.” These types of responses built upon a larger media discourse that frames
Hernandez as responsible for his actions and narrates his downfall as resulting from a series of bad
choices. Writing for Sports Illustrated, Rosenberg (2016) describes Hernandez’s older brother,
Jonathan, as witnessing all of Aaron’s “. . . poor choices, all the unwise associations that led to
murder.” Finn (2017), substantiates this claim: “Hernandez knew right from wrong” and “always
tried to cover up the wrongs, but never stopped choosing them.” Such individualized, moralizing
explanations depict Hernandez as a “diagnostic object” and employ “vocabularies of the therapeu-
tic” to do so, which, according to Nikolas Rose (1999: 217–218), have “become a staple fare of the
mass media of communication.” Furthermore, as other criminologists have noted, neoliberal values
reinscribe this individualized focus, which are often reified in media depictions of crime (e.g.
Cavendar et al., 2010). Media analyses of Hernandez’s demise reflect a particular attempt at
explaining his individual responsibility: by deconstructing his psychological makeup to understand
how the life of a football star could take such a catastrophic turn. They thus evince the wider inter-
nalization of “psy” disciplines has become a primary mode through which to understand, respon-
sibilize, and govern subjects (Rose, 1999).
Accordingly, many commentators depict Hernandez’s violent, delinquent behavior as evidence
of underlying psychological dysfunction. Dolloff (2016) asserts that “[Hernandez’s] mind [was]
clearly warped by his apparent criminal instincts.” Writers refer to Hernandez as a “sociopath”
(Breer, 2017; Dolloff, 2016; Finn, 2017), “a murderously angry man” (Borges and Solotaroff,
2013), “a bad seed” (Volin, 2013), and a “bad man” who “ran wild” (Breer, 2017). Yet, to reiter-
ate the psychological origins of Hernandez’s violent behavior, these representations often refer-
ence popular culture, including comparisons to infamous criminals and sadistic film characters.
Finn (2017) calls Hernandez “a 27-year-old ‘Scarface’ wannabe” (referencing the bloodthirsty
main character from the film of the same name), whereas Rosenberg (2016) maps Hernandez’s
transition from ‘the kid who wanted to be everybody’s friend’ to ‘football’s Al Capone.’ These and
similar allusions invoke a form of sensationalized storytelling in which historical figures and fic-
tional characters serve as symbolic benchmarks for the depth of a criminal’s malevolence.
These types of sensationalized renderings, according to Calavita (2010), “permeate cultural
vernacular in the United States” (p. 30), informing not only how we relate to and understand
crime and justice, but also those who we see as perpetrators. As Leonard (2017: 93) explains,
representations of Hernandez as “inherently evil” and “a ticking time bomb” are co-constructed
with racialized1 characterizations of him as a “gangsta” and a “thug.” Leonard compares these
representations of Hernandez, a heavily tattooed and physically imposing man of Puerto Rican
heritage, to media coverage of former South African Olympic and Paralympic sprinter Oscar
Pistorius, a White Afrikaner man who was convicted of shooting and killing his White girlfriend,
Reeva Steenkamp (see also Biber, 2018). According to Leonard (2017), journalists offer a more
sympathetic depiction of Pistorius’ downfall: it was a tragic shift from heroic Olympian to con-
victed killer, a fall from grace precipitated by an unfortunate one-off event. The initial depictions
of Pistorius are thus a stark contrast to the racialized portrayals of Hernandez, which frame his
criminal acts as an unsurprising outcome of his life of drugs and violence. Highlighting these dif-
ferences is not meant, as Leonard explains, to dispute the relevant autobiographical details associ-
ated with each case, but rather to demonstrate how they are represented through a racialized
lens, one that depicts Hernandez as inherently prone to violence.
Indeed, some writers drew explicitly from racial stereotypes when explaining Hernandez’s devi-
ance (e.g. Borges and Solotaroff, 2013; Whitlock, 2013), while other accounts more subtly fore-
grounded details about his drug use, fascination with guns, and friendships with ex-convicts.
Autobiographical details make strong allusions to race when situated within journalists’ attempts to
trace Hernandez’s demise back to his troublesome upbringing in his hometown of Bristol. They reflect
a shortcoming that Anthony Ellis (2016) observes in relation to explanations of masculinity and crime
more generally: that they tend to attribute criminality to rational subjects or the unfortunate poor
who are conditioned through social labeling. Consider, for example, how Borges and Solotaroff
(2013) in Rolling Stone underscore how Hernandez spent time as a teenager in a “roughneck stretch”
of town and referred to members of his social circle as “thug-life cohorts from Bristol.” Pennington
(2017) calls Bristol Hernandez’s “hardscrabble” hometown and refers to Hernandez’s “Bristol associ-
ates” as “small-time ne’er-do-wells [Hernandez] knew from the old neighborhood.” Through these
representations of Hernandez’s story, Bristol is essentialized as a socio-spatial signifier for a set of
cultural ills and nefarious characters that negatively impacted his life. Borges and Solotaroff (2013)
reinforce this rationale when they ask, “why does Bristol, the town that time forgot, keep landing in
the middle of this lurid story?” Here, “Bristol” stands in for the collection of spaces, people, experi-
ences, and behaviors that seemingly reinforce Hernandez’s ties to his hometown. Breer (2017) writes
that at the University of Florida, “Hernandez’s coaches knew what lurked back in his hometown and
tried to keep him in Gainesville during breaks in the school calendar,” whereas a former college
coach of Hernandez explained to Rolling Stone that “Bristol had [Hernandez] for 17 [years] before he
came to [the University of Florida]” and that his objectionable upbringing had “trumped” any positive
lessons imparted by coaching staff. As Rosenberg (2016) summarizes, “If you believe Aaron
Hernandez grew up to be evil, then the murder of Odin Lloyd began here [in Bristol].”
The situating of Hernandez within an undesirable urban landscape draws on broader symbolic
processes through which place and space are actively racialized (Bonnett and Nayak, 2003). These
framings exemplify the “ghettocentric logics” through which Black and Brown athletic bodies are
unproblematically assumed to be products of the US ghetto, a fetishized space romanticized for
generating fearless, street-tested athletes yet demonized as responsible for athletes’ patterns of
illicit behavior (Mower etal., 2014). Yet these portrayals of Hernandez’s life in Bristol also repro-
duce a form of “perilous masculinity” observed in criminology (de la Tierra, 2016). According to
de la Tierra, the racialized script of perilous masculinity suggests that men who come into adult-
hood in “the street” are socialized to respond to their precarious existence through performances
of violence, crime, and male chauvinism and are therefore predisposed to poor life outcomes.
Henne and Ventresca 401
Media portrayals of Bristol frame Hernandez as the embodiment of perilous masculinity, imply-
ing that his spatial and cultural location was largely to blame for his delinquent lifestyle and crimi-
nal mind. When offering his version of the events that precipitated Hernandez’s violent acts,
Shawn Courchesne notes that Hernandez’s family “didn’t live in the best area of Bristol and they
weren’t wealthy,” and asserts that “obviously if you live in an area like that there are going be
[negative] influences” (Kahler, 2017; emphasis added). That the connection between Hernandez’s
geographic location and harmful influences is obvious for Courchesne exemplifies the logic of
perilous masculinity, in which the values and vices of “the street” are ever-present factors nega-
tively shaping men’s lives. Journalists also evoke perilous masculinity as an explanation when
explaining Hernandez’s reaction to the untimely death of his father, Dennis, who died following
routine surgery when Aaron was 16 years old. Writers depict Dennis’ death as an emotionally
devastating and traumatic event that irreversibly shaped Aaron’s personality and outlook on life.
Members of Hernandez’s family also acknowledge that Aaron began using drugs to help him-
self cope with the loss of his father. Rather than delve into relationships informing these transfor-
mations, media representations cast Aaron as choosing street life in the absence of a father figure.
Articles outline how Dennis was primarily responsible for protecting Aaron from the violent,
“unscrupulous” (Breer, 2017) individuals who lived in their neighborhood; these stories assert
that, without Dennis’ guidance and protection, it was seemingly inevitable that Aaron would be
swept up into Bristol’s seedy underbelly of violence, drugs, and crime.2 As de la Tierra explains,
representations of perilous masculinity do not capture the complexity and diversity of masculini-
ties across urban spaces and instead construct specific types of deviant behaviors or actors as
representative of life within “ghetto” communities.
As a foundational schema used to make sense of Hernandez’s actions, perilous masculinity
underlies journalists’ attempts to untangle the psychosocial roots of his demise. Collectively, these
explanations render the source of Hernandez’s deviance as his early exposure to problematic val-
ues and behaviors he then carried with him throughout his adult life and football career. Such
narratives revolve around the perceived influence of powerful external social forces that irreversi-
bly shaped Hernandez’s life, as he internalized them and developed abnormal psychological traits.
This form of storytelling parallels criminological attempts to connect criminal behavior to psycho-
social development, with journalists mobilizing narrative devices that draw on larger cultural
scripts regarding the origins of deviance. Yet these versions, represented as “factual” accounts of
Hernandez’s life, are stories, revealing how “fictional models permeate factual discourse”
(Sherwin, 1994: 47). In this instance, tacit beliefs about perilous masculinity are not simply
deployed to bolster causal links; they also aid in co-constructing crime and criminals. In other
words, Hernandez, as a criminalistic figure, becomes through texts—which, as we discuss in the
next section, are not limited to psychosocial explanations.
A damaged brain: “Is CTE a defense for murder?”
In September 2017, 5 months after his death, neuroscientists from Boston University announced
that Hernandez had been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurode-
generative condition linked to repetitive brain trauma that can currently only be identified post-
mortem (see McKee etal., 2015). While the capacity to connect CTE pathology to lived symptoms
is still developing, individuals diagnosed with CTE have commonly exhibited noticeable cognitive
and emotional decline, as well as problems with aggression and impulse control (Baugh etal.,
2014). CTE’s connection to sports has intensified through the suicides of several well-known ath-
letes, including football players Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, who were diagnosed with CTE
postmortem. Some experts, however, fiercely contest any perceived causal relationship between
CTE and sport-related brain injury; they claim that not enough is known about CTE to draw con-
clusions about its prevalence among athletes or confirm that the disease is a direct result of brain
trauma (see Ventresca, 2020). The status of CTE as a condition clouded by scientific uncertainty
has not disrupted the broader notion that observed neuropathology can explain deviant behavior.
Hernandez offers an exemplary case in point, as scientific explanations became grounds for attrib-
uting biological reasons for his wrongdoings.
Hernandez’s diagnosis was based on postmortem analyses of his brain conducted by Ann
McKee, the neuropathologist whose work has been central to the development of CTE as a neu-
roscientific and cultural phenomenon. Two months after the initial announcement, McKee held a
press conference, revealing that Hernandez was classified with Stage III CTE (with Stage IV being
the most severe) and that his brain represented the most extreme case of the disease her lab had
observed in a person under the age of 46. Media coverage of the announcement emphasizes this
distinction: CNN, Associated Press, and Washington Post ran stories about the press conference
with almost identical headlines, declaring that Hernandez suffered from “the most severe”
(Kilgore, 2017), “most extreme” (Associated Press, 2017), and “worst” (Kounang, 2017) CTE
ever diagnosed in someone his age. Throughout McKee’s presentation, images of Hernandez’s
brain flashed on the large projector screen behind her. The Washington Post reports that audience
members gasped in disbelief with the appearance of each new slide displaying the extent of dam-
age to the brain tissue (Kilgore, 2017). Brain images are central to neuroscientific discourses as
they support truth claims, which scientists often make and explain in relation to data (Dumit,
2004). Images accompanying stories about the press conference showed McKee standing in front
of the screen, which displayed a slide juxtaposing Hernandez’s atrophied, discolored brain tissue
with the larger, healthy brain of a “normal” 27-year-old. In doing so, as Dumit (2004) notes, the
meanings attributed to brain images changed when mobilized in these media narratives: they
became proof rather than supplementary information. Here, the decontextualized images of
“normal” brains served as the basis for provocative visual comparison through which lay audi-
ences could see the magnitude of McKee’s findings in the absence of comprehensive scientific
data. The power of these images reinforced the gravity of the scientific claims McKee made in the
press conference.
Accounts describe how McKee highlighted the severe degeneration specific to the brain’s
frontal lobes, explaining that these regions are “very important for decision-making, judgment,
and cognition” (Kilgore, 2017). They also emphasize how she elaborated that Hernandez did not
show evidence of other brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, and that every aspect of their analysis
uncovered what she described as “classic CTE” (Kounang, 2017). McKee did, however, add a
caveat: she indicated that she could not confirm whether the damage to Hernandez’s brain was
responsible for his violent actions, stating that neuropathological findings alone do not explain
Hernandez’s behavior. Yet, when doing so, McKee commented that while she was not going to
“connect the dots with his behavior or difficulties during life,” she could confirm that individuals
with CTE of the severity found in Hernandez’s brain “have difficulty with impulse control, deci-
sion-making, inhibition of impulses for aggression, emotional volatility, [and] rage behaviors”
Henne and Ventresca 403
(Kounang, 2017). Thus, even with this caveat, her words reinforce an explanatory narrative that
follows a causal-linear logic (Sherwin, 1994). Despite journalists’ mention of McKee’s unwilling-
ness to “connect the dots” between Hernandez’s criminalistic behavior and his CTE diagnosis, the
framing and tone of the coverage imply strongly that the extent of damage to his brain matched
the severity of his crimes.
Media stories connecting Hernandez’s crimes to his CTE diagnosis followed these announce-
ments. Hernandez’s attorney, Jose Baez, features centrally in much of this coverage. Articles often
quote Baez as expressing regret for not introducing arguments around CTE during Hernandez’s
murder trials and stating that, in hindsight, he had witnessed Hernandez display many behaviors
characteristic of CTE symptoms. An editorial in the New York Times, written by law professors
Amy Dillard and Lisa Tucker (2017) and published under the provocative headline, “Is CTE a
defense for murder?,” similarly argues that information about the behavioral manifestations of
CTE could have swayed the jury’s thinking in Hernandez’s 2015 murder trial. Their commentary
questions whether Hernandez should be held responsible for his actions when CTE is known to
comprise a person’s cognitive and emotional state, concluding,
Because of the post-mortem CTE diagnosis, we now know there was substantial evidence that
Mr. Hernandez should not have been convicted of first-degree murder. Given the conclusive
diagnosis of Stage 3 CTE, it is likely that a lifetime of playing football—not Mr. Hernandez’s
will—was to blame.
These comments reflect Spivak’s (2018) assertion that the Hernandez case has facilitated
movement toward CTE’s incorporation into a version of the insanity defense, with neuroscientists
serving as expert witnesses to establish (or refute) a defendant’s diminished capacity or
CTE has yet to be deployed successfully as a criminal defense, but the impact of the “CTE
Defense” may be more substantial in informing cultural imaginings of criminal behavior. Indeed,
immediately after Hernandez’s April 2017 death, months before McKee’s formal diagnosis, jour-
nalists speculated about how a future CTE diagnosis might change his status under the law (e.g.
McCann, 2017). More recently, journalists reported on the possibility that lawyers might incorpo-
rate CTE into their defense of Kellen Winslow Jr, a former NFL player convicted of sexual assault,
rape, and kidnapping (e.g. McCann, 2018; Perez, 2018). Although Winslow was 35 years old and
had not been formally diagnosed with CTE, the notion that brain damage could contribute to
reduced mental capacity is a focal point of media coverage of his trial. The viability of such a legal
strategy for Winslow is almost always articulated through comparisons with Aaron Hernandez, as
both men’s crimes seemed particularly egregious and lacking in self-control.
These developments are part of a wider shift in understandings of the brain and its capacity.
Neuroscience and neuropathology are gaining explanatory traction across a range of social prob-
lems, legal adjudications of culpability, and studies of crime (Fallin etal., 2018; Pitts-Taylor, 2016).
It is a trend often referred to as “neurocriminology,” the proponents of which posit “knowledge
claims that stress the neurological dimensions of crime in order to position themselves in opposi-
tion to mainstream criminology” (Fallin etal., 2018: 3). As part of a revival in explanations of crime
“preoccupied with human differences” (Rafter, 2008: 246), neurocriminology, according to
Mallory Fallin etal. (2018: 2–3), has notable consequences in which
the bio eclipses the social . . . The result is an account of crime that transforms a multitude of
social, environmental, and behavioral processes into neurological dysfunction. Among other
things, this depoliticizes crime and elides the interaction between the criminal justice system
and social structural factors . . . Consequently, along with producing knowledge, neurocrimi-
nologists simultaneously produce ignorance regarding the social.
Following neurocriminological reasoning, and in contrast to the established narrative linking
Hernandez’s violence to psychosocial factors, commentators hold up the football player’s dam-
aged brain as evidence for a different accounting of events. The convergence of scientific, legal,
and media discourses effectively re-coded Hernandez’s crimes and re-positioned him as victim of
violence in addition to perpetrator. For some writers, Hernandez’s CTE diagnosis facilitated a new
understanding of his culpability through which issues of morality became translated into ones of
capability. His damaged brain not only became an indicator that he could not be held fully respon-
sible for his actions, but also became physical evidence that could potentially implicate institu-
tions, such as the NFL and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), that arguably failed to
protect him from the harms of football (Gregory, 2017). This change in subject position, however,
flattens the social and political contexts of crime as Fallin and colleagues describe, reducing com-
plex cultural processes to matters of the brain.
Some reports did contest suggestions that CTE played a role in Hernandez’s downfall by reas-
serting the significance of his longer history of delinquency and attributing them to psychosocial
factors. Commentators issue reminders about the complexity of human experience, especially
when dealing with atypical or extraordinary circumstances. The Hartford Courant quotes NFL
spokesperson Joe Lockhart who acknowledged that Hernandez’s “personal story is complex. It
doesn’t lend itself to simple answers” (Doyle, 2017). In a similar vein, Alan Schwarz (2017), in a
piece for Deadspin called “The ‘CTE drove Aaron Hernandez’ narrative is too convenient, and
dangerous,” writes that “behavior at the individual level is too complicated, deriving from one’s
parents, environment, trauma, experiences, genetics and so much more, to let CTE or anything
stand alone as the explanation for their actions.” Statements about the complexity of CTE and
violence as neuropsychological phenomena reflect broader media discourses portraying the sci-
ence around CTE (and any cause-and-effect relationship between football and brain damage) to
be uncertain (Ventresca, 2019). These explanations indeed disrupt a neurocriminological reading
of Hernandez’s demise, openly questioning the notion that brain degeneration was exclusively—
or even principally—responsible for Hernandez’s acts of violence. Instead, causal inferences about
CTE were supplanted by more complex, non-linear frames suggesting that Hernandez’s psychol-
ogy and social environment offer alternative—and arguably superior—explanations regarding the
origins of his deviance.
Yet these challenges to the explanatory power of CTE return to familiar narratives that fore-
ground the psychosocial determinants of his criminality. Schwarz (2017), for example, cites
Hernandez’s “long-time sociopathy” as evidence that his violent behavior was not exclusively
induced by the gradual degeneration of his brain. Tomase (2017) writes that there may be “an
element of truth” to the suggestion that CTE shaped Hernandez’s behavior, but the more realistic
explanation for Hernandez’s violent acts is that he was a “psychopath.” In a Sports Illustrated
article titled “Don’t be so quick to label CTE as the reason for Aaron Hernandez’s behavior,”
Rosenberg (2017) argues that in the death of Dennis Hernandez, possible post-traumatic stress
Henne and Ventresca 405
disorder, associating with “a different crowd,” drug use, and “character concerns” were more
likely than CTE to have contributed to Aaron’s violent dispositions. Whitley (2017) concurs, con-
cluding his article titled “Aaron Hernandez had a criminal mind before CTE,” by declaring “. . .
Hernandez would have been a thug if he’d never played a down [of football] after high school.”
Taken together, these statements reaffirm a narrative that reiterates Hernandez’s individual cul-
pability for his actions. Most definitively, Tomase (2017) argues for greater recognition that “per-
haps Hernandez played a role in his downfall,” had “some personal responsibility for his actions,”
and “deserves blame for his life choices.” Although dispelling the logics of biological determinism
and neurocriminology, such explanations revert to causal-linear trajectories of a different sort,
pinpointing specific characteristics, events, or circumstances as leading to Hernandez’s downfall
while obscuring other factors. While attentive to some dimensions of social context and the com-
plexity of human experience, these narratives selectively draw their evidence from individualized
tropes of criminality, perilous masculinity, and athletic success.
Reading Hernandez as a body of evidence: football and
failed redemption
Thus far, we have mapped out two narrative explanations within the media discourse around
Hernandez’s criminality. What we have not yet explored is how these portrayals of Hernandez’s
downfall, which tend to focus on his individual mind/brain and body, take front stage in ways that
draw attention away other institutional considerations. In particular, they relay a functionalist
conceptualization of sport; that is, sport goes unquestioned as a positive and progressive force,
one that can provide poor athletes of color an opportunity for social mobility if they work hard,
play by the rules, and demonstrate upstanding moral character. Sport, at least within the US cul-
tural imaginary, is often envisioned as enabling individual transformation by nurturing values of
masculine strength and toughness and as fostering positive character development by promoting
determination, discipline, and respect for authority (Messner, 1990; Oates, 2017). Films, such as
The Blind Side, reinforce these stories of redemption by celebrating athletes of color portrayed as
taking advantage of opportunities in sport to escape not only poverty and marginalization, but
also the social ills of their past lives in undesirable communities (Montez de Oca, 2012). These
tales of individual achievement, however, locate football outside forms of structural and institu-
tional racism that shape opportunities for social and economic mobility, within and beyond sport.
Conveying colorblind ideologies of achievement through fortitude, they render athletes’ failures
to take advantage of the socioeconomic promise of sport as resulting from poor choices or a lack
of work ethic and self-discipline (Carrington, 2010; Mower etal., 2014). Collectively, these ideolo-
gies, also observed in socio-legal spheres (e.g. Crenshaw, 1988), hegemonically reinforce myths
about social mobility: they reframe people of color’s systematic oppression as if it is the result of
individual decisions and actions made free from the constraints of structural marginalization. In
short, they reinforce tacit beliefs in racialized inferiority. In this case, as we discuss in this section,
Hernandez is not so much a fall from grace story, but an unsurprising failure, one that media
stories depict as an unfortunate return to his seemingly “true” self.
These ideological tensions surface in representations of Hernandez’s football career, which
often construct important life milestones as central to his pursuit of redemption and self-transfor-
mation. Many articles document how Hernandez’s late selection in the fourth round of the 2010
NFL draft was a result of teams dismissing him, despite his immense talent, because of perceived
immaturity and “character issues” (Borges and Solotaroff, 2013; Hohler, 2018; Kilgore, 2017;
Rosenberg, 2016). When Hernandez was drafted by the New England Patriots, his career trajec-
tory becomes entangled with the mythology of coach Bill Belichick and “The Patriot Way”—a set
of values largely credited with the team’s continuous success under Belichick. Often depicted as a
cerebral coach with a revered coaching philosophy, Belichick is renowned for his ability to rehabili-
tate players with histories of bad behavior. While formal articulations of the Patriot Way are hard
to come by, it is often represented as promoting internal competition, accountability, selflessness,
and winning above all else (Faulk, 2017). The logic behind the Patriot Way is that players, even
those with blighted personal histories or “character issues,” fall in line because they come to
embrace the promise of success and adopt Belichick’s unique philosophy of putting the team first.
Consider, for example, the coverage of Hernandez’s US$40 million contract extension in 2012.
Many stories quote him speaking to the transformative potential of the Patriot Way (e.g. Reiss, 2013):
[Being a New England Patriot] changed me as a person, because you can’t come here and act
reckless. I was one of those persons. I came here and might have acted the way I wanted to
act. But you get changed by Bill Belichick’s way. You get changed by the Patriot Way.
Hernandez also explains that his engagement to Shayanna Jenkins and birth of their daughter,
Avielle, inspired him to break his pattern of reckless behavior (Hughes, 2012). As such, the signs
of him “settling down” take on explicitly heteronormative contours, with the move toward estab-
lishing a nuclear family operating as a symbol of responsibility and stability.
Following Hernandez’s arrest and ongoing rumors of his homosexual tendencies, his actions
and past assertions become read as evidence of betrayal. Writers would frequently cite these and
similar statements following Hernandez’s arrest proof that he had manipulated the Patriots and
their fans into believing he had undergone such a transformation and abandoned the reckless
ways of his past (Bishop, 2013; Breer, 2017; Healy, 2018; Kahler, 2017; Leonard, 2017; Reiss,
2013). Articles include quotes from Patriots’ owner Bob Kraft, who declared that he and the entire
Patriots organization had been “duped” by Hernandez. In comments reflecting the power of
sport-based narratives of redemption, Reiss remembers that Hernandez’s perceived transforma-
tion “seemed like a feel-good story at the time,” whereas Breer writes that he, too, had “bought
the story that [Hernandez] had turned his life around hook, line, and sinker.” Others, such as
Wetzel (2017), characterize Hernandez as “turning his back on a dream life in the NFL,” while
Finn (2017) affirms that Hernandez “deliberately snuffed out” his own potential as an athlete.
Some accounts at the time offer retrospective investigations into Hernandez’s days at the University
of Florida, speculating if his behavior there predicted his eventual ruin (Borges and Solotaroff,
2013; Breer, 2017; Kilgore, 2017). Borges and Solotaroff even claim that Hernandez’s inability to
change under the guidance of devout leaders, such as coach Urban Meyer and teammate Tim
Tebow, demonstrated the depth of his immaturity and psychological dysfunction.
Dominant representations of the Hernandez story tend to render football as a space that pro-
vided him with opportunities for mentorship, social mobility, and self-transformation.
Acknowledgment of any destructive or harmful influences related to his football career is largely
limited to the severity of neurological damage afflicting his brain. While some journalists criticize
individual coaches, such as Belichick and Meyer, for willfully turning a blind eye to Hernandez’s
Henne and Ventresca 407
patterns of bad behavior (Borges and Solotaroff, 2013; Breer, 2017; Whitlock, 2013), few writers
interrogate the structures and values of American football as contributing to Hernandez’s fate.
Dominguez (2017), a notable exception, does write that Hernandez’s trajectory “cannot be
divorced from the institutions that shaped him, from his family to his football teams, and the
values they instilled in him.” Specifically, Dominguez details how Hernandez gravitated toward a
“dangerous ideology of self-reliance and toxic masculinity” during his time at the University of
Florida, framing the corporate structure of college football as enabling him to act upon his violent,
aggressive impulses without consequence. University of Florida powerbrokers, according to
Dominguez’s account, were inclined to protect Hernandez from reprimand “as long as he was an
excellent player and a good employee.”
Some writers pick up this critical line of inquiry into institutions of professional sport and their
influence on Hernandez’s trajectory. For example, articles from the 2018 Boston Globe Spotlight
investigation into Hernandez’s death similarly highlight how the corporate culture of the NFL
negatively shaped his life (Hohler, 2018; Hohler and Wen, 2018; Pfeiffer, 2018). Hohler and Wen
(2018) represent Hernandez as a “damning example of the indifference big-time football often
shows to the price some of its players pay.” Pfeiffer (2018) extends the analysis, including com-
ments from sociologist Jeffrey Montez de Oca, who affirms that Hernandez’s descent demon-
strates how “individual players and their wellbeing are not a priority for the NFL” and that
Hernandez became “the product of an institution (the NFL) that’s highly exploitative of poor
young men.” Although making similar observations as other excavations of Hernandez’s life,
these select few reports challenge dominant narratives of redemption through sport. Specifically,
they illuminate how football, as an institution, relies on exploitative practices that create harmful
environments for athletes in precarious circumstances. As few journalists interrogate how foot-
ball’s celebration of hyper-masculine dominance and aggression might have affected Hernandez’s
toxic relationship with violence, depictions of the sport’s culture of self-discipline and hard work
emerge unproblematically as an antidote to Hernandez’s reckless deviance.
Coverage about Hernandez’s sexuality reinscribed his deviance from sport norms and values.
After his death, as reports that Hernandez had a long-standing history of sexual relationships with
men surfaced, journalists speculated about how questions about his own sexuality might have
shaped his violent dispositions. Published investigations largely focused on internal contradictions
that impacted Hernandez’s psychology. Pfeiffer (2018), for instance, describes Hernandez as being
“conflicted with his sexuality”; Healy (2018) similarly writes that “Hernandez also projected contra-
dictory sides of himself. For a young man grappling with his sexual identity, he was prone to going
on homophobic rants.” Hohler and Wen (2018) relay comments from Aaron’s brother, Jonathan,
who, in light of revelations about his brother’s sexuality, lamented how the Hernandez home envi-
ronment was “deeply homophobic.” Mostly absent from this media discourse were attempts to
situate Hernandez’s navigation of his sexuality within the culture of hegemonic masculinity and
compulsory heterosexuality within professional football, a discriminatory context that has been
well-documented by sports scholars (e.g. Brody, 2019; Oates, 2017). Furthermore, such an analysis
would require considering how challenges facing non-heterosexual athletes intersect with gender,
race, and socioeconomic inequalities that shape life as an elite football player.
Instead, the narratives that inform the Hernandez story selectively and strategically explore
issues of socioeconomic inequality and structural violence. Even when journalists probe elements
of the social conditions surrounding Hernandez’s downfall, their stories support causal-linear
narratives reliant on tropes of perilous masculinity, neurocriminological reasoning, or sport-based
stories of redemption. In doing so, these accounts—like Hernandez’s life and actions—are both
etched and shaped by structural, discursive, and embodied terrains of violence. How Hernandez
navigated these entangled forms of violence is arguably more complex than reporting suggests.
Take, for example, his suicide note, the language of which suggests he chose to die so that his
fiancée and daughter could receive remuneration through his remaining football contract. His
death appears to be a calculation: acquitted of double homicide and appealing another charge,
Hernandez could be deemed “innocent” at the time of death and thus in compliance with the
terms of his agreement with the Patriots.3 His suicide can therefore be understood as a final
agentive act, one that was arguably not possible in life, as he died believing he was innocent
before the law.
The narratives analyzed here provide mere glimpses into the violence Hernandez managed and
exercised in life. They fail to attend to how they can be understood as constitutive of who
Hernandez was in both life and death. For instance, in reports, the violence of football is primarily
actualized in the form of brain trauma, not as an inherent and multifaceted dimension of sport
(see Dunning, 1999; Young, 2019). Violent crime is cast as something perpetuated by individuals,
that is, rooted in their minds and brains, not in social problems linked to structural inequalities.
The roles of racism, homophobia, social class, and masculinity operate as scripts that aid in under-
standing Hernandez’s pathology, not as oppressive systems of which Hernandez too was a victim.
In short, discourse articulates violence as an instrumental issue, not as a systemic concern.
This article offers a critical attempt to make sense of Hernandez as a criminalized celebrity who
embodies a particular form of celebrated criminality and to illustrate how his crimes become
attributed to his mind and brain. Although one narrative reflects a stronger psychosocial emphasis
and the other is a neurocriminological one, they both reduce a complex story to one of two key
assumptions: that his violent actions were the result of pathological mind influenced by a troubled
upbringing linked to a specific cultural environment or brain damage. The absences within both
become particularly important. They provide gaps for readily available scripts and schemata to fill
in seemingly logical ways, as Sherwin (1994) explains, and they also eschew complicated manifes-
tations of violence, including sport, that inform Hernandez’s life and death, which Fallin et al.
(2018) suggest is symptomatic of neurocriminological explanations. Moreover, both reflect neolib-
eral cultural tendencies that emphasize individuality in relation to one’s failure or success within
capitalistic enterprises, of which professional football is a clear exemplar in the United States.
As these narratives fail to interrogate the epistemological or ontological assumptions on which
they rest, we conclude by reflecting on their implications. Explanations that render deviant behav-
iors as located in the brain and perilous masculinity as a predeterminant of violence depoliticize
crime and delinquency at a hegemonic level. Drawing on commonsensical frameworks, they, for
the most part, focus on criminalistic manifestations in the body as evidence of deviance rather
than query how institutions enable (and even celebrate) certain kinds of delinquency, masculine
violence, and exploitation. In short, they foreclose a deeper interrogation of conditions to which
political and social interventions could respond. Moreover, despite the causal assertions found
within the narratives analyzed here, some details remain awkwardly unexplained, particularly
Henne and Ventresca 409
around Hernandez’s motives and their possible connection to his sexuality. In fact, ambiguity still
circulates around the reasons behind his actions. Hernandez remains what Young (1996) describes
as an unruly body, a criminalized figure that “displays itself as non-juridical, outside the realm of
legal rules” (p. 77). This unruliness carries over into the challenges of trying to explain Hernandez’s
criminality. He embodies contradictions of sport, violence, and masculinity, and his actions in life
transcend the scripts ascribed to them.
As such, we believe the struggle to make sense of Hernandez offers a productive disruption,
especially in light of assertions about the growing influence of neurocriminology. Some scholars
contend the focus on the “neuro” (as opposed to the “psy”) has given way to a materially grounded
emphasis on the brain. Fallin etal. (2018) argue that it contributes to an increasing disregard of the
social, while Rose and Abi-Rached (2013) contend it is symptomatic of a larger ontological shift
that erodes the cultural subscription to a mind/body divide. This analysis of Hernandez reveals that
these scholarly observations are perhaps not as palpable as they suggest. Instead, the imaginings
of crime—explored here through media narratives—are resistant to a wholesale embrace of mate-
rial explanations of crime. Neurocriminology may substantiate some responsibilizing narratives, but
authors do cast doubt on the extent to which they can explain Hernandez’s crimes. Brain-centric
explanations of crime gain traction when they resonate with existing popular cultural references,
narrative arcs, and tacit beliefs about perilous masculinity. Writers contest them when they appear
overdeterministic or depart from accepted scripts and schemata. It is perhaps not surprising then
that the trope of perilous masculinity retains its purchase, for it seems to convey complexity while
still reinforcing naturalized beliefs about race, class, masculinity, and sport.
Declaration of conflicting interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or pub-
lication of this article.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication
of this article: Kathryn Henne received funding from the Australian Research Council (DE170100819) and the
Canada Research Chairs program.
Kathryn Henne
1. We use “racialized” to acknowledge that social—and in particular, linguistic—processes inform the
categorization and sorting of individuals, bodies, and groups along racial lines, meaning that such char-
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2. In contrast to initially favorable renderings of Dennis Hernandez as an important father figure and role
model, Hohler and Wen (2018) report that Dennis was frequently violent and abusive toward Aaron—
often berating him using sexist and homophobic slurs.
3. This is under the doctrine of abatement ab initio, which means “from the beginning”—that is, if some-
one dies while appealing a case, it reverts to its status at the beginning of the legal process. At the
time, an automatic appeal to the Massachusetts Supreme Court accompanied any first-degree murder
convictions. As such, it is as if the trial and conviction never happened, vacating the sentence. The
Massachusetts Supreme Court has since reinstated the conviction, ruling that abatement ab initio is
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Author biographies
Kathryn Henne holds the Canada research chair in Biogovernance, Law and Society at the University of
Waterloo, where she is a fellow of the Balsillie School of International Affairs. She is also associate professor
at RegNet, the School of Regulation and Global Governance at the Australian National University.
Matt Ventresca is a postdoctoral associate in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary, where
he contributes to the Socio-Cultural Studies of Sport, Physical Activity, and the Body research area. He is also
a member of the University of Calgary Integrated Concussion Research Program.
... With the agency of tau, a shift occurs wherein men who were violent as a job, and whose violence sometimes (often?) exceeds the field of play, become the victims of the drama (see also Henne and Ventresca 2019). Postmortem narratives are consolidated in some ways and not others, by the tellers, the journalists who selectively re-tell a story, and the scientists and doctors who speak on behalf of facts. ...
... The whittleddown one-way message, where tau is the chief agent in the story, lays the groundwork for an overbearing focus on mechanical causes of violent tendencies as though they appear only after sport-induced brain trauma. In some alarming cases, violence committed by athletes outside of sport-assaults and murders, often of women-is being read as a symptom of CTE in the perpetrator (Henne and Ventresca 2019). This is neuro-reductionism par excellence. ...
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CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is caused by repetitive head trauma and detected by a distinctive stain for a protein called ‘tau’ in autopsied brain tissue. While the number of diagnosed patients is only in the hundreds, the cultural footprint of the disease in North America is huge, both because those diagnosed are often celebrity-athletes and because millions of children, adolescents and young men and women play collision sports like football and hockey. We argue that the widespread attention to CTE provides a useful wedge to crack open another, heretofore neglected public health concern: repetitive acts of violence in and around hypermasculine sports create subjects whose brains—and characters—are materially shaped by that violence. Brains change materially when delivering blows as well as receiving them, when participating in degrading hazing rituals as victim or assailant, when belittled or assaulted by a coach, when approaching an upcoming game riddled with fear. We adopt a biosocial model of the brain’s becoming to intervene in a linear discourse around CTE that medicalizes and oversimplifies violence, a story that prematurely dissects one slice of the problem from a noxious whole.
... Grano further argues that the social values and conceptions of risk embedded within brain banking are unlikely to do justice to classed and raced aspects of risk-based decision making that are key to understanding the concussion crisis. Others (e.g., Brayton et al., 2019;Henne and Ventresca, 2019;Martin and McMillan, 2020) have likewise identified reductionist and/or neoliberal logics underpinning reporting into the concussion crisis; a conclusion that chimes with existing research suggesting that neuroscientific findings frequently perpetuate rather than challenge existing understandings of society (O'Connor et al., 2012;O'Connor and Joffe, 2013). These conclusions regarding the underpinning logics of concussion science and journalism are complementary to, and yet notably distinct from, those that consider overt conflicts of interest. ...
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The death of American football player Mike Webster has become foundational to narratives of sport’s 21st century concussion crisis. Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist who conducted Webster’s autopsy and subsequently diagnosed Webster with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), has, likewise, become a central figure in the concussion crisis. Indeed, it is frequently argued that there is something about Omalu in particular that made it possible for him to ‘witness’ CTE when the disease entity had hitherto remained invisible to a great many medics and scientists. In this article, and drawing upon auto/biographies, I consider Omalu’s self-described mode of scientific witnessing which purportedly allowed him to (re)discover CTE. I find Omalu’s described objectivity to be shaped by three factors: First, the importance of ‘trained judgment’ within which Omalu’s scientific training is emphasized. Second, the infusion of religiosity within scientific practice. Third, a self-described position as an ‘outsider’ to both football and American culture. Throughout this analysis, I pay attention not only to the ways in which Omalu’s narratives depart from conventional depictions of scientific objectivity, I also note the similarities with particular bodies of social scientific work, most notably within a feminist ‘turn to care’ in Science and Technology Studies and related standpoint epistemologies. Following these analyses, I argue that, first, Omalu’s writing opens space affords the dead a ‘response-ability’ that is often absent within analyses of the concussion crisis and, second, that a focus upon diverse forms of objectivity, such as those described in Omalu’s work, complements existing work into concussion science that has foregrounded scientific conflict of interest.
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The observation that neurological illnesses follow recurrent hits to the head was tempered by the terms that first called the diseases into scientific existence: "punch-drunk," "slugnutty," "slaphappy," "goofy," "punchy," and a host of other colloquialisms accompanying class identities. Thus the discovery of disease and its medicalization ran straight into a countervailing belief about losers-losers in boxing, losers in life, losers in general. To medicalize such individuals was to fly in the face of a culture that made them jokes. Yet a subcul-ture began to emerge around pathological understandings: first in medicine, then in journalism, then in the courts, and finally with patient accounts about illness.
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With the increasing use of imaging technologies like fMRI in prison sentencing and penal policy, sociologists must comprehend the consequences of these trends and the scientific assumptions upon which they stand. This article uses insights from the sociology of knowledge to interrogate the epistemological and ontological assumptions of neurocriminology, an interdisciplinary field that studies the neural basis of crime. Through a discourse analysis of research articles that embrace what we term the “neurocriminological vision,” we demonstrate how features of the research design eschew the consideration of social factors underlying crime and antisocial behavior. Focusing on the section of control variables, the ‘thinness’ of experimental tasks, and the management of inconvenient facts, we demonstrate how neurocriminological research transforms complex, socially situated behaviors into problems of neurocircuitry. We link these practices to the field-specific dynamics in which neurocriminology is situated, specifically as an interdisciplinary field which derives authority from neuroscience but is met with skepticism within criminology. In response to these dynamics, neurocriminologists produce not only knowledge, but also ignorance that is strategically useful given their professional goals. Beyond the particular case at hand, we emphasize the relationship between internal dynamics within scientific fields and their effects on the co-production of knowledge and ignorance.
This book traces a quiet transformation in public life, in which a populist sense of white male aggrievement, and an admiration for deal-making sensibilities and an interest in remaking the self have combined to form a potent political formation. To understand it, the book identifies a central cultural site where aspects of this formation has been developed, refined, and occasionally contested: media texts about the National Football League (NFL). Deploying the tools of feminist media analysis, it seeks answers to a number of questions: How have the corporate-produced meanings of the league shifted to make football meaningful and compelling to its millions of fans in a purportedly “post-feminist” and “post-racial” era? What kinds of gender and racialized subjects do these texts imagine? What ethics do they express? These questions are addressed in chapters that focus on a theme and a particular media form: Dramas for cinema and television about the dynamics of pro football teams; sports journalism about the NFL draft, in which new talent is assessed; popular books by football coaches that offer guides to managing organizations and the self; and promotions for fantasy football that present budget-minded strategies as entertainment. The concluding chapter argues that journalism and other depictions of football that challenge the logics of hegemonic racialized masculinity offer possibilities for resistance and transformation.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a medical diagnosis that has largely come to define sports’ “concussion crisis.” Scientific definitions typically describe CTE as a neurodegenerative condition associated with repeated exposure to traumatic brain injury (TBI) and symptoms including cognitive decline, emotional or behavioral changes, and motor impairment. Public conversations about CTE are typified by harrowing stories of psychological distress and athlete suicide; yet neuroscientific conceptions of the condition are characterized by much uncertainty, especially around whether scientists can prove if repetitive brain trauma is the direct cause of CTE. My analysis reveals the multiple, competing ways in which such uncertainty is produced. Uncertainty around CTE materializes in part through scientists’ active framing of existing bodies of knowledge as incomplete or inconclusive, but also from the limits of neuroscience in representing the material complexity of the brain and its connection to human experience. Following the work of Michelle Murphy (Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty. Raleigh, NC: Duke University Press, 2006; The Scholar and Feminist Online, 11(3), 1–9, 2013), I resist citing scientific uncertainty around CTE as “proof” that collision sports do not inflict damage on athletes’ brains. I affirm that the neuroscientific paradigms driving most CTE research offer narrow parameters for conceptualizing how brain trauma occurs through sport and shapes athletes’ experiences. Given the multifaceted and overlapping ways in which athletes experience harm, identifying the sources of these harms should not revolve around isolating individual causes and effects but instead interrogating the varied assemblages of practices, values, and environments—the infrastructures of harm—that together facilitate contexts in which athletes sustain and endure damage. As such, I argue that athletes’ firsthand experiences of navigating these infrastructures should be valued as embodied counter-knowledge to scientific uncertainties around CTE.
This article examines the sporting discourses that surrounded Michael Sam’s attempt to play in the National Football League (NFL). It argues that Sam would inevitably be described as a failure because of his inability to exist within the logics of heteronormativity and situates his experience within the framework of neoliberalism and Whiteness to better understand how both function as mediating factors in his ability to attain success. Rather than dismissing Sam’s story as abject failure, this article instead reevaluates his journey within the lens of queerness. It discusses how we might look to queerness as a mode of being, which allows a refocusing of the story from Sam’s individual failure to the institutions which fail to include queer bodies in their vision of success.
This paper examines the role of official inquiry in the context of controversial deaths at a mine explosion in Canada. It documents how medical science and law contributed to the social production of official knowledge about lost lives in the Westray disaster and analyzes the significance of this public truth-telling on the registration of other truth accounts. The paper concludes by considering the counter-memories to official accounts and the role that a formal public inquiry into the disaster played in further transforming the fields of enunciation about the truth of death at Westray. © 2007, Canadian Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
This paper defends the concept of racialization against its critics. As the concept has become increasingly popular, questions about its meaning and value have been raised, and a backlash against its use has occurred. I argue that when “racialization” is properly understood, criticisms of the concept are unsuccessful. I defend a definition of racialization and identify its companion concept, “racialized group.” Racialization is often used as a synonym for “racial formation.” I argue that this is a mistake. Racial formation theory is committed to racial ontology, but racialization is best understood as the process through which racialized – rather than racial – groups are formed. “Racialization” plays a unique role in the conceptual landscape, and it is a key concept for race eliminativists and anti-realists about race.