By: Elliot Heller | Opinions  | 

Chiefs, NFL Take Giant Leap Backward on Domestic Violence

In February of 2014, Baltimore Ravens Pro-Bowl running back Ray Rice was investigated for assaulting his then-fiancee in an elevator in Atlantic City. The league initially suspended Rice for two games. This decision was very controversial; critics questioned why it was only half the length of the mandated suspension for players who violate the league's performance-enhancing drugs policy and argued that this penalty sent the message that the league does not view domestic violence in a serious enough light.

A few months later, TMZ obtained and released a video of the incident. Rice, who had been fully honest with the Ravens and the league in explaining what had transpired that night, now faced mass outrage from media and fans, many of whom called for his suspension to be increased and for him to be released by the team. They got their wish on both counts. Rice was released from the Ravens and his suspension was changed to “indefinite.” Rice sued the league for increasing his punishment merely in response to the video (the contents of which he had already admitted to), and won his case. The NFL clearly botched this, a fact Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted. The initial suspension should have been longer, and the attempt at redemption upon the video’s release was too late and ineffective. One would hope that the league learned a lesson or two from this incident.

Rice, for his part, began to make public appearances speaking out against domestic violence, speaking primarily to audiences of young men. He also agreed to be the subject of an hour-long NFL-sponsored video highlighting the topic. (Whether this was a sincere expression of remorse or merely an attempt to revive his NFL career is unclear, but I applaud Rice for doing this regardless, and I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt.) While this may have at least somewhat mended Rice’s public image, the damage to his NFL career had been done. The former all-pro and Super Bowl champion never played another down in the league.

Fast forward to the spring of 2016. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill of West Alabama has impressed scouts with his blazing speed. However, his draft stock is lower than it would have been, due to his criminal record. In 2014, Hill was sentenced to three years of probation for choking and punching Crystal Espinal, his pregnant girlfriend. This led to his dismissal from his Oklahoma State University’s football team and subsequent transfer to West Alabama. Maybe I should say that again. Hill pled guilty to choking and punching his pregnant girlfriend. While I am a believer in second chances, I think and hope we can all agree that there are some actions that do not merit one. But sadly, the Kansas City Chiefs disagreed, and they selected Hill in the fifth round of the 2016 draft.

After a promising rookie year, Hill absolutely burst onto the scene in 2017. He averaged over 80 receptions and 1,200 receiving yards in 2017 and 2018, defying defenders with his blazing speed, and burning them on several big plays. Hill earned Pro Bowl appearances in each of his first three seasons and was a key part of the Chiefs’ run to the AFC Championship game in January. After three years and no off-the-field, the Chiefs’ gamble that Hill — who had taken a 52-week batterer intervention course as part of his plea deal — would stay out of trouble was seemingly paying off.

Then came March 2019. Police were called to Hill’s home on two separate occasions, once for a report of an “alleged battery involving a juvenile,” which resulted in Hill’s and Espinal’s (now his fiance) three-year-old son breaking his arm, and the second in response to a report of “child abuse or neglect.” The Chiefs and the NFL chose to let the legal process play itself out rather than take action — a common course of action during the offseason, and one which is understandable.

Hill was not charged in either case, and on April 24, the local prosecutor announced that due to a lack of evidence no charges would be brought. The next day, a local news station played a recording Espinal had secretly made of a conversation between her and Hill. The eleven-minute conversation, which purportedly took place in a Dubai airport, records Hill and Espinal accusing each other of abusing the child.

“And they [investigators] said time and time again that [child’s name] kept saying, ‘Daddy punches me.’ Which you do when he starts crying,” Espinal said. “What do you do? You make him open his arms and you punch him in the chest. And then if he gets in trouble you get the belt out."

Hill did not deny the allegations but countered by accusing Espinal of hitting the child with a belt as well. She admitted hitting him but not with a belt. Later in the recording, Espinal told Hill that their son was terrified of him. His response was one of the scariest real-life things I have ever heard. “You need to be terrified of me, too, b****.”

So let’s review. We have a 25-year-old superstar just entering his prime. This same man has admitted to choking and punching his pregnant girlfriend in the stomach, and despite a year of court-mandated intervention, he has made a threat of violence against the mother of his child. If it were me, that alone would be enough for me to bar this man from ever stepping foot on an NFL field again. Now add in the child abuse accusation, which he did not deny on the tape. (Isn’t that the first thing you would do if someone accused you of hitting your child with a belt?) Is there really even a question?

There is one conclusion which has been made utterly evident and which will not change no matter how many records he may break: Tyreek Hill is a thug. He is a repeat and dangerous offender who has no place in the NFL, a league which claims to have moral standards and aims to have its players serve as role models to society. Sadly and inexplicably, the Chiefs have not released Hill, nor has the league issued even an indefinite suspension. The Chiefs have banned him from participating in offseason team activities, but this is wholly insufficient. While it is understandable that they are afraid of Hill being signed by another team (like what happened with star running back Kareem Hunt, whom they released last season after a domestic violence incident and who subsequently signed with the Cleveland Browns after receiving a half-season suspension), they simply must consider the message they are sending by not cutting ties with Hill immediately. The message is clear: If you are a good enough player, your behavior is irreproachable. No crime is too egregious. Any and all excuses will be made for you, and nothing short of a prison cell can jeopardize your career.

Some have made the argument that releasing or suspending Hill would result in his becoming angrier and more dangerous, further endangering his fiance (the child has been placed in the custody of a foster family and is reportedly doing well). This argument misses the boat. Hill, like all violent offenders, should get the help he needs. His colleagues and coaches on the Chiefs should reach out to him if they feel they can help. But it is in no way necessary for Hill to keep his job for that to happen. I’m no legal expert, but it seems to me that Hill has a pretty decent chance of being charged and convicted of abuse. Hopefully, his fiance will seek a restraining order against him due to the threat he made against her. But the bottom line is that the NFL and the Chiefs need to think past Hill to the next potential offender in their ranks.

Many thought that the 8-game suspension given to Hunt for his domestic violence charge was too short. Hunt can sit out the first half of the season, be well-rested, and help a playoff contender to a potential Super Bowl run, before becoming a free agent and cashing in big. While his suspension is the longest the league has given to any domestic violence offender, other players have received suspensions of equal length for things like insider trading and second-time violations of the performance-enhancing drug policy. When things like Hill’s recording come out and the response is to push off doing the obviously necessary thing for as long as is feasibly possible, something is seriously wrong.

The criminal justice system is meant to protect society, (hopefully) rehabilitate offenders and act as a deterrent against future offenders. The latter goal is also accomplished by the threat of losing one’s job after getting into legal trouble or committing unacceptable acts. What is to stop the next star player with a propensity for violence from not thinking twice before acting on his angry impulses towards his romantic partner or child?

Tyreek Hill’s son is terrified of him. His fiance may be as well. But what is he terrified of? And what will future offenders be terrified of? Thanks to the NFL and the Chiefs, the answer may simply be a decline in play causing them to no longer be a good enough player to qualify for a free pass. And that should terrify us all.

Photo Caption: Tyreek Hill

Photo Credit: Associated Press