The Netflix limited series, “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez,” has reopened many controversies regarding the convicted killer and former NFL star. Hernandez, who played for the New England Patriots, was convicted of the first-degree murder of Odin Llyod in 2015.
Much of the series focuses on Hernandez’s rise from standout high school football player to the National Football League at the age of 20, his complicated relationship with his family, and his personal demons. Using recordings of Hernandez speaking with his friends, family, and fiancé while in prison and interviews with those closest to him, the series pieces together the fragmented story of his downfall.
While a great deal of commentary attended his conviction and involvement in two prior murders he was acquitted in, one area of particular media interest has been his sexuality. As BuzzFeed notes in “Netflix’s Aaron Hernandez Documentary Finally Talks About His Sexuality,” “And the Hernandez saga might have been forgotten by now if the mystery of his identity — more specifically, his sexuality — hadn’t become central to the story right before his death.”
The article opens arguing that Hernandez’s “queerness” may have influenced his criminal behavior. The series interviews a close friend Hernandez grew up with, Dennis SanSoucie, who claims he was an early sexual partner, even going so far as to describe them as being in a relationship as teenagers. While SanSoucie insists Hernandez was “proud” of his sexuality, but forced to conceal it for his career, the series goes to great lengths to portray him and his environment as homophobic, transphobic, and fixated on toxic masculinity.
Hernandez’s father, a core figure in his early life and personal development, is described as authoritarian, cold, and aggressively homophobic. After his father’s unexpected death when Hernandez was 16 years old, the latter’s story and personality seem to dramatically change and never fully recover. By the time of his trial, at the age of 23, he had grown into a troubled man with a double life, living as both a dedicated football champion and a dangerous and volatile man capable of murder.
This duality is positioned as the result of being forced to hide a part of who he was, from his father described by SanSoucie as the kind of man who “would slap the faggot out of you,” to his fiancé, his teammates, and the press. Another teammate, seemingly included in the series for the sole purpose of providing an additional narrative of a closeted gay football player, speculated about the emotional trauma of Hernandez being pressured to do so.
Despite the current social conversation about “toxic masculinity,” and the movie’s opportunistic approach of taking all of this speculation and creating a more satisfying narrative, it simply does not add up. Hernandez chose a lifestyle that involved criminal behavior, drugs, violence, and a status-obsessed culture that rewarded personal pride and machismo. He routinely exploded in anger and violence at the slightest provocation and was highly distrustful and paranoid. He valued a self-described gangster lifestyle that denied him the peace and family he seemingly longed for.
If he also struggled with his sexuality, there is no doubt it would heighten his anxiety, paranoia, and defensiveness, but that was not his sole demon. In truth, it really should never have been involved in the story at all.
The man he was convicted of murdering was dating the sister of his fiancé. They knew each other and were friends. He took his friend out to an isolated area and brutally shot him multiple times. He was seen afterwards, comfortably relaxing with the other two men involved as if nothing had happened.
Whatever Hernandez internally experienced, there is abundant evidence—from the interviews, his phone calls, and the details of his activities—that he lacked a conscience and was very possibly a sociopath capable of manufacturing emotions and behaviors. This reveals the fatal flaw of the series and the general media interest in his crimes: there is far too much focus on the possible outside influences that caused him to behave the way he did. There seems to be no consideration that perhaps he simply was precisely the man he chose to be, all on his own.
Sensationally speculating on his sexuality has captured the imagination of the media far more than the objective facts of the case have. The “gangster” culture he embraced, which indulged his violent impulsiveness, seems only guilty of being “homophobic.” His father, who dedicated himself to raising a son who appreciated hard work and success, is minimized for his assumed anti-gay bigotry, despite the issue never coming up while he was alive. Somehow the weight of his internal homophobia is meant to be understood as so deeply oppressive as to have driven him to homicide.
Everyone develops a sense of his sexuality and sense of worth, and what role sex, relationships, and morality will play in his life. Coming to terms with being a gay or bisexual person in an environment where this is viewed as shameful is a powerful obstacle, but we must stop pretending it can barely be overcome. It does not remove personal responsibility for one’s actions or somehow deactivate normal social expectations. It certainly does not absolve someone of murder.
In listening to conversations from prison with his fiancé and very young daughter, it is clear Hernandez loved both of them, and that is the true tragedy of the story. When he committed suicide he seems to have done so in the hopes of exploiting an archaic Massachusetts law that would automatically overturn a conviction if the convicted died during an appeal. He hoped his salary from the NFL would go to his daughter to care for her. The only emotion he seemed to genuinely experience during his trial was looking at his daughter for the last time.
Why a remarkably talented young man with a multi-million-dollar contract with the NFL, a fiancé, and infant daughter would pursue a lifestyle of meaningless indulgence and violence is the true question we should be asking. What draws a dedicated young man to such a world where he barely values his own life, let alone the lives of others?
But his sexual experimentation as a teenager or his sense of sexuality? It should never have mattered.
The series exposes the depth of exploitation and danger in college sports and the NFL where the health, safety, and even legal safety of players is the lowest priority. It allows us to see into a world in which very young men are given incredible power and influence, plus teams of people to cover up their indulgences for the sake of optics.
The series also did a very good job of exploring the effects of brain injury in players and how it can diminish mental capacity and long-term health. But adding Hernandez’s alleged sexuality was little more than exploitative sensationalism and truly did nothing to help understand the killer’s motives or inner demons.