On Pro Football: A Soaring N.F.L. Is Disrupted by a Familiar Demon: Off-Field Abuse
Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt seemed to embody an N.F.L. that had been regaining its footing after a period of sliding ratings and fan anger over player protests during the national anthem.
The league has enjoyed higher-scoring games, better television ratings and the emergence of several exciting young players like Hunt, who has been a force behind the Chiefs’ ascension the last two years.
Now, Hunt has come to embody something else about the league: Its recurring problem with players’ abusive conduct off the field and a penchant for giving second chances to those who play well despite a professed intolerance for off-field transgressions.
And so the N.F.L., the nation’s richest and most popular sports league, again finds itself under scrutiny for something other than touchdowns and tackles, having to answer for the reality that some teams will sign troubled but talented players as long as they can tolerate the bad publicity.
On Friday, a graphic video emerged of Hunt shoving a woman, before and after she struck him in the face, and kicking her when she was on the ground during an altercation in a Cleveland hotel in February. The Chiefs quickly announced they would release him, and Hunt was later suspended indefinitely from playing by the league.
Both the league and the Chiefs said they had investigated the episode immediately after it occurred. But no criminal charges were filed, and no disciplinary action was taken at the time. The N.F.L. and the Chiefs said they had not seen the hotel video, which TMZ obtained and posted.
The N.F.L. did not interview Hunt because none of the alleged victims would speak to the league. Instead, the league relied on the Chiefs, who were told by Hunt that no violence had occurred, according to a person briefed on the investigation who was not authorized to discuss its specifics.
Hunt was involved in another violent episode in May, when he punched a man in the face, but again, the police did not file charges, and the Chiefs took no action against him.
Also last week, Reuben Foster, a linebacker, was released by the San Francisco 49ers after being arrested on domestic violence charges, but was then almost immediately hired by the Washington Redskins. Foster is suspended from play and practices but can work out and attend team meetings.
Doug Williams, the former player and current Redskins executive, was roundly criticized when he described Foster’s arrest as “small potatoes” in a radio interview. He later apologized.
Experts who have advised the league said teams were foremost focused on winning, and the league and teams preferred to handle situations that might require discipline internally, keeping matters under wraps as long as possible. If the bad behavior is exposed, teams adopt a crisis response approach to clean it up.
“They hold everything close to the chest,” said Rene Redwood, who has advised the league on issues of race and abuse. “When it becomes a consistent problem, and holding the information doesn’t seem to remedy it, they try to get through it with another public relations activity.”
The league in recent years has sought to project intolerance for off-field misconduct. In 2014, after several star players — including Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy — were suspended after they had been charged with physical abuse or domestic violence, the N.F.L. beefed up its investigation unit and said it would no longer rely solely on the police or whether charges had been filed when assessing possible misconduct.
Yet self-reflection and scrutiny have never been this league’s strong suit — it’s a multibillion-dollar business trying to survive and thrive amid questions about head injuries and the changing dynamics of television — and some players are penalized only a few games, if at all, for their misconduct. They often get signed by teams that cross their fingers and hope the players behave.
“It sends a troubling message because there’s a lack of consistency,” said Mark Conrad, who teaches sports law and ethics at Fordham University. These episodes are “a validation of the continued problem the league has with this issue, that individual teams will prioritize their need for certain players despite questionable behavior off the field.”
Indeed, Clark Hunt, the Chiefs’ co-owner and chief executive, said this summer that he was hopeful that Kareem Hunt had learned from his past. “I’m sure he learned some lessons this off-season and hopefully won’t be in those kinds of situations in the future,” he said.
On Sunday, Kareem Hunt apologized but also asked for another chance to play in the N.F.L. “I was in the wrong,” Hunt told ESPN. “I’m asking for forgiveness and I definitely believe I deserve forgiveness.”
Coach Andy Reid said little about the situation after Kansas City’s 40-33 win over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, which bumped their record to 10-2.
“As we’ve done in the past, we handle it within and we handle it with the person affected,” Reid said.
Players have due process rights under the collective bargaining agreement and can be falsely accused, of course. Yet the league also has been burned by relying on incomplete police investigations, so it has come to do its own digging to determine if penalties are warranted, even if no criminal charges are filed. Still the N.F.L., lacking the authority of law enforcement, has had trouble gathering evidence and getting the cooperation of those making accusations.
The police in Cleveland were also limited in what they could do. A spokeswoman for the Cleveland Police, Sgt. Jennifer Ciaccia, said that detectives do not pursue cases like Hunt’s, which was classified as misdemeanor assault. To file charges, the accuser would have had to go to the city prosecutor’s office, which she did not do.
Sergeant Ciaccia did not say whether the N.F.L. had asked her department for the video of the altercation. But she said the department never had the video, and that “to my knowledge” the police never saw it. “The video may have been released by the hotel,” she added.
Even so, the cases of Foster and Hunt are as much about how their teams gave them the benefit of the doubt more than once.
Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers coach, told reporters that the team didn’t need to wait for the legal process to conclude before deciding to cut Foster.
But Foster has been part of several other troubling episodes. He was sent home from the scouting combine two years ago because of an altercation with a hospital worker. He was accused of domestic violence during the off-season, but his former girlfriend — the same woman from the most recent accusations — recanted the accusation. Hunt was suspended for the first two games of this season because of a misdemeanor gun charge and a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge that was dropped. In October, Foster had another run-in with his former girlfriend, but no arrests were made.
It was only after Foster was arrested at the team hotel on a misdemeanor domestic violence charge hours before a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that the 49ers cut him.
“Too many things have happened, and we’ve tried to help him out a lot,” Shanahan said. “And I know he has been trying, too. But this was a mess-up that it doesn’t matter whether he did or not.”
The Redskins did not share the 49ers’ regrets. Two days after Foster was cut, the Redskins claimed him off waivers. Williams, the team’s senior vice president of player personnel, said he hoped that Foster would turn himself around in Washington, where many of his former teammates from the University of Alabama play.
“Nothing is promised to Reuben, but we are hopeful being around so many of his former teammates and friends will eventually provide him with the best possible environment to succeed both personally and professionally,” he said.
Even after the Redskins were criticized for picking up Foster before his legal case played out, Williams said that he was still worth the hassle.
“Basically what you’re doing here is you’re taking a high-risk chance,” Williams said. “The high risk was the beat-up that we’re going to take from the PR. We understood that from a PR standpoint, and we’re taking it.”
The Chiefs were willing to take the criticism for Hunt’s actions in a hotel in Cleveland in February.
But once the video surfaced, there was no other way to spin the story, no matter how valuable Hunt is to the Chiefs’ Super Bowl ambitions.
“If it’s a particularly valuable player, they’ll cross their fingers and hope he changes his behavior,” said Kim Gandy, the president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence who advised the league several years ago. “Sometimes crossing their fingers works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”