Gladiator: A Podcast on Football and Missed Signals
Since I’m a hypocrite with headphones that get a lot of use, I knew I would get around to listening to Gladiator, a new podcast about the life and death of former NFL player Aaron Hernandez, when it first appeared atop the iTunes Charts in November. The series, from the podcast network Wondery, is the audio version of a six-part investigative series done by the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team on Hernandez’s upbringing and history in amateur and professional football.
The full title of the series, Gladiator: Aaron Hernandez and Football Inc., is evocative and fitting for anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the former New England Patriot or of American football. Hernandez, who was six foot one and weighed almost two-hundred fifty pounds, played a violent sport in front of cheering crowds at his boyhood home in Bristol, Connecticut, his college in Gainesville, Florida, and Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis. His football career ended in 2013 when he was arrested and charged with the murder of his friend, which he was convicted of two years later and sentenced to life in prison. Hernandez was implicated in multiple other shootings and homicides and committed suicide in 2017.
The series, six episodes of thirty to forty minutes, touches on issues and conflicts at the heart of American culture including football and brain damage, college athletics, sexuality, drug use, fame, and more. In episodes one through four, Hernandez goes from an athletically precocious baby brother to a cog in the scam machine of NCAA football to a twenty-three-year-old charged with first-degree murder.
There is heartbreaking and maddening audio throughout. The mother of Odin Lloyd, of whom Hernandez was found guilty of an execution-style murder, speaks about learning from seemingly callous police officers that her son was dead. People in and around the Patriots and University of Florida football programs tell of the countless signs that Hernandez was troubled and dangerous while he helped his teams win football games. Hernandez’s brother wrote a book about his infamous sibling and is heard on the podcast speaking about the boys’ parents and upbringing.
The podcast is hosted by Bob Hohler who also co-wrote the Boston Globe’s piece. His narration and the audio content in each episode lean in heavily on implicating the cultural forces and institutions that led to multiple tragedies. Hernandez’s early life appears to be a stew of toxic masculinity, homophobia, domestic violence, silence, and an outsized importance of youth football. One of Hernandez’s former high school football coaches says the following about seeing a teenage Hernandez with a black eye after getting in trouble at a school dance: “The next time we saw him, he looked like I guess his father did discipline him some.” So, punching a child in the face is “discipline.” (I think that, on balance, high school football coaches contribute about as much to American society as payday lenders or anti-vaccination activists.)
Overall, the podcast is worth listening to even if, like me, you are familiar with and a little queasy about the story of Aaron Hernandez. The final two episodes cover his suicide in a Massachusetts prison and the subsequent autopsy that revealed that he, along with many dead football players, had chronic traumatic encephalopathy. That he was a victim of this disease and of a violent childhood does not make Hernandez a sympathetic figure. Having CTE and coming from a violent home are not proximate causes to becoming an unrepentant killer. Yet listening to Gladiator and reading the Globe’s series, one does wonder how football and its importance to Aaron Hernandez’s father, life trajectory, and country obscured signals of trouble and made interventions from people invested in the sport far less likely.