Commercials for the NFL’s Inspire Change program (the league’s social justice initiative) also highlighted these issues.
Inside the mind of a killer?
Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez explores aspects of his life as potential explanations for his demise: the death of his father, his years in the University of Florida football program, his drug use and acquaintances with criminal records and his chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) diagnosis. The series also foregrounds revelations that Hernandez had sexual relationships with men.
The series does not arrive at a clear conclusion for what happened to Hernandez. This has been a source of frustration for critics who have panned Killer Inside for needlessly complicating what they consider to be the seemingly obvious root causes of Hernandez’s crimes.
These criticisms, however, offer a misguided suggestion that clear answers are possible, even in cases as complicated as Hernandez’s. This aligns with what we found in our research. Our study shows that journalists made causal inferences about how Hernandez’s volatile upbringing or CTE symptoms prompted his violent actions.
Killer Inside offers something more complex. It reflects what we and some criminologists have argued: that our knowledge of specific acts of crime is usually partial.
In this way, Killer Inside relies heavily on popular narratives of crime and punishment.The portrayal of Hernandez’s trials brings to mind an episode of Law & Order with dramatic courtroom scenes interspersed with comments from officials and attorneys.
Killer Inside also taps into the allure of deep dives into intimate details of Hernandez’s life. This format follows true crime conventions and mirrors the storytelling dynamics of popular television shows such as Criminal Minds. In fact, the series subtitle, The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, puts focus squarely on his psyche and sells the series as providing windows into his innermost thoughts.
In doing so, Killer Inside lacks critical reflection on the criminal justice system.
Killer Inside positions the Hernandez story firmly outside of broader criminal justice debates.
This lack of critique is perhaps not surprising. But it still perpetuates an unquestioned vision of criminal justice narrowly built around identifying and punishing perpetrators. This vision draws attention away from social structures and institutions that contribute to inequitable practices of criminalization.
This is especially important as we see this issue implicated in election campaign messaging.
Criminal justice beyond Aaron Hernandez
Killer Inside informs a cultural context in which politicians can co-opt criminal justice reform as an election issue while still reinforcing misguided assumptions about violent crime, ignoring policing’s racist origins and propping up individualized, behaviour-based solutions to systemic problems.
Yet, as the NFL continues to face questions about the Hernandez case and Kaepernick’s unsigned status, the coexistence of Killer Inside and the Inspire Change ads is a reminder of football’s power to influence politics. We can believe current and former players are doing meaningful work through Inspire Change. That said, we must first acknowledge that the NFL has also undermined calls for police accountability by stifling protest.