The NFL hype machine is up and cranking, the opening of training camps across the league yet another reminder that football does pro sports’ best job of monetizing the yearlong calendar. Dormant, action-starved fans are more than happy to debate positional battles and dissect preseason plays in advance of any real stakes, and from HBO’s upcoming edition of “Hard Knocks” with the Raiders to the two-week frenzy of daily live training camp telecasts on the league’s own network, it’s obvious the NFL is more than happy to fuel the conversation.
Especially when it overshadows the more difficult conversations we should be having around the NFL, the ones league leaders bury in Friday afternoon news dumps, the ones that continue to expose how flawed the in-house disciplinary system is when it comes to cases of domestic violence.
With last Friday’s quiet announcement that Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill would not be suspended for his most recent brush with the law, when he was investigated along with his partner, Crystal Espinal, for injuries to the son they share, the NFL hid behind the curtain of privacy erected by local law enforcement, insisting it could not invoke the terms of the personal conduct policy without the sealed details of what happened, details that did not lead to charges against Hill or Espinal but did not clear them of wrongdoing, either.
You might think the NFL was 100 percent right in this decision, or 100 percent wrong. Given the unknowns, you could surely make an argument either way.
And that is the NFL’s newest problem. As bad as the league once was in recognizing the seriousness of this issue, it’s been proven just as ill-equipped to handle it, flailing at the whims of an arbitrary, uneven hand of commissioner Roger Goodell, the almighty arbiter of justice.
“Far be it from you or I or anyone to question the investigation, how they conducted it, whether they could get information or couldn’t get information, but we’re left scratching our heads, feeling, ‘What’s going on here,’ with decisions that feel capricious and whimsical,” says Andrew Brandt, executive director of the Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law at Villanova University Law School. “A feeling that maybe it’s dependent on the value of the player and that’s certainly not an impartial way of looking at it. It feels like the pendulum keeps swinging.”
To Brandt’s point: Hill escaped punishment where say, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott did not, despite a similar absence of charges, similar doubts about the accuser, and similar claims of innocence. Hill escaped punishment where say, Seahawks defensive tackle Jarran Reed did not, suspended this week for six games over an incident from early 2017, one that involved the police and a 3 a.m. argument but about which little detail has emerged. Hill escaped punishment where say, Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith was suspended four games in 2018 for, as the Ravens said, “evidence of threatening and emotionally abusive behaviors by Jimmy toward his former girlfriend that showed a pattern of improper conduct.”
The inconsistency is not limited to issues of violence.
Hill escaped punishment where say, nomadic wide receiver Josh Gordon is on a second indefinite suspension for failed drug tests that are said to involve primarily marijuana and have been closely connected to Gordon’s mental well-being. Hill escaped punishment where say, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady sat out four games for a role in allegedly deflated footballs, something he testified under oath he did not do.
As much as we clamored for the NFL to wake up in the post-Ray Rice era and be more proactive in holding players accountable for the atrocities of domestic violence, as much as we asked it to get more involved in disciplining players in the hopes it would help educate them in the devastating consequences of their actions, the result has been an inconsistent mess of vaguely worded standards.
The policy that went into effect after the Rice mess was supposed to treat all problematic cases equally, but the benefit of hindsight confirms what was first shown in that case: Video trumps all.
If TMZ doesn’t obtain the videos that the NFL can’t (or won’t), showing us up close what Rice — or later Kareem Hunt — has done, then odds of punishment immediately change. But that’s not how the NFL wrote the rules for personal conduct.
“It is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime,” the league said. “We are all held to a higher standard and must conduct ourselves in a way that is responsible, promotes the values of the NFL, and is lawful. Players convicted of a crime or subject to a disposition of a criminal proceeding (as defined in this Policy) are subject to discipline. But even if the conduct does not result in a criminal conviction, players found to have engaged in any of the following conduct will be subject to discipline.”
The first conduct specified? “Actual or threatened physical violence against another person, including dating violence, domestic violence, child abuse, and other forms of family violence.”
Hill’s 3-year-old son had a broken arm, though authorities concede they don’t know how it happened, with both parties blaming the other. The prosecutor did, however, publicly state belief that abuse occurred. Taped recordings between the child’s parents reveal ugly, volatile behavior from Hill, with his declaration that Espinal should be “scared of him, too [expletive],” a threat that in and of itself would seem to fit the parameter for punishment. With reports that Espinal declined to talk to the NFL, the easy assumption is that she did so to hide untruths, but isn’t it just as plausible she did so precisely because she’s telling the truth, and lives in fear of Hill’s reaction to her putting their lives and livelihood at risk with too many details?
In the end, it just feels like little has changed, and not because players end up in the headlines for doing bad things. Percentages guarantee behaviors ranging from antisocial to criminal. That’s just a sad truth of society. What feels so mind-numbingly the same is the NFL’s inability to deal with these incidents with any hint of consistency, any shred of credibility, or even one iota of accountability. The hype machine rages on, but please, let’s not let this conversation get lost in the noise.