The cloud cast by the Aaron Hernandez tragedy has become menacingly darker.
The life of the 27-year-old which hurtled into a nightmare of murder charges and violence ended last April with the use of a bedsheet in a prison cell.
While the sporting world was shocked at such a brutal ending, little was made about the NFL’s role in his demise.
Questions were rightly posed about the inability of the Patriots to see the warning signs despite the alarm bells shrieking.
Yes, professional athletes are adults but was protecting such a vulnerable, impressionable man who clearly had deep rooted problems a burden too far?
Yet following stunning revelations last week that Hernandez was severely affected by CTE – the degenerative brain condition caused by repeated blows to the head – this story, which the families of the victims thought had reached its conclusion, has suddenly started to move in a new direction.
And for commissioner Roger Goodell and his attempts to brush aside the concussion crisis which is threatening the future of American football, it makes extremely uncomfortable reading.
Medics at Boston University, who have become the leading voices in the battle to heighten awareness of the sport’s dangers, revealed Hernandez was indeed suffering from Stage 3 CTE – a level of damage only seen in ex-players around the 60-year-old mark. No-one this young has ever been affected so badly.
Of course, Hernandez clearly had severe mental issues. He wasted a multi-million dollar contract by gunning down defenseless Odin Lloyd, who was dating his fiancée’s sister, following an argument.
There were other scrapes and gangster-like behaviour. Not the actions of someone whose faculties are fully intact.
So while the debate over whether CTE – which is known to cause unduly aggressive, violent and wild behavioural swings – actually caused him to act so recklessly is a tremendously difficult one to navigate, it’s undeniable that his time in the NFL wreaked havoc with his head.
A recent study found signs of the disease in 110 of 111 NFL players whose brains were inspected.
Not all of them became psychopathic murderers.
In fact, in the similarly tragic cases of Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, the only shots fired were fatally at themselves.
Though who’s to say that it didn’t play any part at all in his shocking demise? His injuries were caused by football so it’s fair to speculate that his death was also linked.
Hernandez’s attorney Jose Baez is certainly playing that card.
He accuses the NFL of hiding the true dangers of the sport.
“Defendants were fully aware of the dangers of exposing NFL players to repeated traumatic head impacts,” Baez said in the lawsuit. “Yet, defendants concealed and misrepresented the risks.”
The concussion timebomb has been ticking for a while – it’s already cost almost $1 billion in lawsuits though President Donald Trump stupidly accused referees of “ruining the game” at the weekend with their clampdown on dangerous challenges – yet could now be ready to explode.
Science is working hard to unearth more harsh truths but isn’t there yet.
Those in the game will point to those ex-players who are totally fine. They will stress the stats mask the realities. Just like boxers, NFL players know the risks when they sign on the dotted line.
This gruesome new chapter, however, must be the start of more preventative measures.
Better helmets have been introduced. Supposedly safer ways to tackle have also been brought in to not only safeguard today’s stars, but those of tomorrow as well.
The Canadian Football League recently announced full contact practice sessions are to be banned during the season.
The NFL currently have 14 per season which was agreed in the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement so don’t expect any major overhaul right now.
The legal battles will continue to rage as will the debates about player safety.
Yet with all these new gruesome details being laid bare, how can the NFL survive without making drastic changes?
The answer, if Goodell is listening, is it surely cannot.