How Toxic Masculinity is Literally Killing Football Players

***TRIGGER WARNING: This article mentions suicide, depression, and other forms of violence.***

So I’ll be upfront: I don’t know much about football. I had to Google who is in the Super Bowl this year (It’s the Chiefs vs the 49ers. Go 49ers, I guess) and I’m certainly not an avid follower of the game.

But what I do love is a good true crime story.

That’s how I found out about Aaron Hernandez. Maybe you knew him as the tight end for the Patriots. More likely, you know him as a convicted murderer who died back in 2017 following an intense court drama. I watched the three-part documentary series on Hernandez hoping for a salacious story (think OJ), but the case turned out to be incredibly complex.

There’s lots to dive into in the Hernandez case: his sexuality, his immaturity, his status as an NFL elite. But the thing that stuck out to me was Hernandez’s posthumous diagnosis with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

Quickly, CTE is a brain disease that occurs after a build-up of concussions and other injuries to the head. It’s common for military veterans and athletes in contact sports like boxing, hockey, or football. The disease has devastating effects on the brain, impacting decision making and causing violent and suicidal tendencies. In a study of 111 brains of deceased NFL players, all but one showed signs of CTE.

Aaron Hernandez, who was convicted in 2013 of the murder of Odin Lloyd and later took his own life by suicide, was shown to have the worst case of CTE of any person his age––meaning his brain showed more damage than any other player who had been studied.

His lawyer, Jose Baez (also Casey Anthony’s lawyer, for context) blames Hernandez’s suicide on CTE, saying:

“When your brain is damaged, everything else goes out the window.”

Many even blame the brutal murder on CTE, sighting impaired judgment and violence as some of the symptoms. And, while this might be true––we really will never know exactly what made Hernandez do the things he did––we have to wonder what the NFL’s responsibility in all of this is. If we are to assume that Aaron Hernandez’s violent behavior did have something to do with CTE, does that mean it could have been prevented?

This, of course, isn’t to say that the NFL had a hand in the murder of Odin Lloyd. It certainly doesn’t remove the blood on Hernadez’s hand for taking the life of an innocent man. But maybe CTE is pointing to an undercurrent of systematic violence and poor mental health that the NFL does nothing to combat.

Since 2011, there have been three suicides linked to CTE. Junior Seau, who played for the New England Patriots until 2010, shot himself in the chest so his brain could be studied for the impacts of CTE.

While we know that NFL players are almost guaranteed to get this debilitating disease, the NFL has little to no resources for players dealing with mental health issues. In fact, Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez even suggests that players were given drugs and told to push through injuries. Many young players reminisce on days when they were told to push through head injuries, despite major consequences. 

Despite feeble attempts to address mental health in the NFL, it appears that these initiatives do little more than provide the league with some plausible deniability when athletes are left depressed and suicidal––often because of the sport they play.

As CTE becomes more present to the collective consciousness, some worry that it is a cop-out for talking about mental health. In 2018, Tyler Hilinski killed himself and was later diagnosed with stage 1 CTE. Some argue that CTE is simply a distraction for something bigger––a complete lack of mental health support for athletes, going all the way up to the pros.

The NFL’s legacy is built on the back of toxic masculinity. Whether CTE is the sole cause of these suicides or not, the NFL (and the college programs that will eventually feed into it) do not provide the tools for their players to cope with mental illness or their feelings in a healthy way.

Rather than encouraging rest, the NFL regularly tells players to play through the pain. With common slogans like “you’re only as good as your last game” and even “you’re not that good...that you can afford to miss practice”, players are constantly told that they should prioritize their legacy over their day to day health.

Even further, the NFL uses the toxic, highly competitive environment to their advantage––both to silence players about their struggles with mental health, and to keep them playing despite their personal challenges. Sure, fierce competition is absolutely necessary in the world of pro football––but at what point do we admit that it’s gone too far?

This level of competition has led to major depressive episodes and physical injury, simply because players are told to “man up” and play no matter what the circumstances might be.

A Harvard study said, “given their physical size and fitness, celebrity status and relative financial success, it is easy for people to dehumanize players and disregard the mental health challenges of playing in the NFL”.

It goes on to list reasons why NFL players find themselves unable to seek the help they need:

  • Fear that seeking help would negatively affect their careers.
  • Stigma around mental health challenges that keep players from seeking help.
  • The belief that counseling would not be kept confidential and that players would be reported to management.
  • High-pressure work environment rife with high stakes and constant scrutiny.
  • Limited knowledge of mental health programs and other forms of assistance offered by the NFL and NFLPA.

While the link might not be immediate, toxic masculinity directly impacts CTE as well. As long as players are made to (whether by literal force or by the NFL’s institutional pressure) play through serious head injuries, they’ll keep getting CTE. Right now, the serious disease is a given for players. They realize that a few years of glory might mean an early death, and certainly some unwanted side effects.

As players suffer in silence, the NFL profits off of their inability to ask for help. Using performative acts like their mental health publicity stunt back in May of 2019, the NFL is able to cover up the fact that their negligence is literally killing their players.

In our current moment, CTE is a reality the NFL has to deal with. For years and years, the NFL ignored the rampant complaints about brain injury until it was literally impossible to push under the rug. But even today, we don’t see a huge push to re-evaluate. Scientists are still studying the disease, but we haven’t seen any major cultural impacts within the organization. Players are still asked to play through their injuries and are celebrated when they do. We haven’t seen much improvement in player safety or access to resources for current and past athletes.

So, why is this important for somebody who doesn’t watch football? I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: I am not a football fan. But listen: the world is watching. Whether I want to admit it or not, football is like church for so many Americans. Young boys grow up idolizing these men, willing to do anything to fill their shoes. It’s why so many football players find themselves unable to advocate for adequate mental health care––there’s a line a mile long to take their place.

As long as we let the NFL take advantage of these young men, we’re letting our culture be dominated by toxic masculinity. When young boys see these men pushed so far they are driven to suicide, that communicates that emotions are something to be hidden. That a real man suffers in silence. Football is indicative of American culture and it is everyone’s job to advocate for the sake of the men on the field and watching from home.