NFL executive vice president of communications Joe Lockhart responded Friday morning to the $20 million lawsuit filed by Aaron Hernandez’s estate against the league and the Patriots, saying, “We intend to contest the claim vigorously.”
The lawsuit, filed Thursday, claims that the NFL and the Patriots failed to protect Hernandez from the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Hernandez, who committed suicide in prison last spring two years after being found guilty of murder, was found posthumously by researchers at Boston University to have had Stage 3 CTE. The finding was revealed Thursday as part of the lawsuit.
“Any attempt here to paint Aaron Hernandez as a victim we believe is misguided,” Lockhart said Friday. “His personal story is complex, doesn’t lend itself to simple answers. We do have to remember that he was convicted of a homicide, and his well-documented behavioral issues began long before he played in the National Football League.
“The real victims here are the friends and family of the man who was killed, and those left behind, particularly his young daughter.”
Lockhart pointed out that the NFL collective bargaining agreement permits the estate of players who commit suicide to still collect benefits such as a pension, though he did not have the specifics of the benefits and did not know whether Hernandez’s estate has taken advantage of them.
Lockhart also fought back strongly against the notion that Hernandez’s CTE was caused solely by playing football. A Globe review of NFL injury reports found that Hernandez suffered just one documented concussion in his three-year NFL career, and he did not have any documented concussions in three seasons playing at the University of Florida.
Hernandez, convicted of the 2013 murder of his friend Odin Lloyd but found not guilty of a separate double murder, had a documented history of drug abuse. He committed suicide in jail in April at age 27, just days after his acquittal in the second trial.
Lockhart pointed out that while Hernandez was a “sociopath” with CTE, former NFL star Frank Gifford also was found with CTE, but lived a productive life into his 80s.
“I think this case does highlight a critical point, and it goes to the consensus among the scientific community to how much they still need to understand about CTE,” Lockhart said. “This is a very complicated puzzle. Every piece is important – wherever it comes from, whatever institution, whatever science, to getting the definitive answers on both causation and incidence of CTE.
“There are a lot of dots here. Science just hasn’t figured out how to connect them yet.”
Lockhart pointed to two studies: one from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that determined that former NFL players commit suicide at half the national rate, and one from the University of Pennsylvania that studied high school football players from Wisconsin in the 1950s that he said found “no increased cognitive impairment or depression later in life when compared to people who didn’t play football.”
“I think we’d all do well to focus as much or more on the broad scientific studies than individual case studies,” he said.
Lockhart said the NFL does not intend to settle the lawsuit, as some legal analysts have suggested.
“I think ‘fight vigorously’ is clear,” he said.
What’s unclear is whether Hernandez is covered in the NFL’s $1 billion concussion settlement in 2014, which prevents players who retired before July 7, 2014, from filing future lawsuits against the league. Hernandez’s career ended when he was arrested in June 2013, but he never officially retired.
“That is an issue that we’re going to have to look at, whether he was part of the class and chose to join the class or opt out,” Lockhart said. “Our research on that is not complete.”