Kareem Hunt’s release a warning to players, but exposes NFL’s limits

For about six hours, it felt like a same-old, same-old, “NFL gets it wrong again” kind of day. Another ugly Friday for a league that never can seem to get out of its own way when it comes to investigating bad off-field behavior by its players. A video surfaced of a star player in a physical altercation with a woman, hours went by, and the league put the player on the commissioner’s exempt list — a nebulous move that barely resonates with a public that doesn’t fully understand what it even means.

Then the Chiefs announced they were releasing Kareem Hunt.

And THAT got everyone’s attention.

Hunt is 23 years old, led the league in rushing last season as a rookie and currently ranks fifth in the league in rushing in the second year of a four-year contract that pays him an average of $610,625 per season. The Chiefs are 9-2 and in position for their best chance at a Super Bowl title since they won it in 1970. Releasing a player of Hunt’s caliber and value was, from a pure-football standpoint, one of the most difficult and detrimental things they could have done to their team.

But they did it, and their explanation was simple and direct.

“Earlier this year, we were made aware of an incident involving running back Kareem Hunt,” the team’s official statement read. “At that time, the National Football League and law enforcement initiated investigations into the issue. As part of our internal discussions with Kareem, several members of our management team spoke directly to him. Kareem was not truthful in those discussions. The video released today confirms that fact. We are releasing Kareem immediately.”

He lied, they say, so he’s out. And just like that, the Chiefs did more for the future of the NFL’s ability to conduct these types of investigations than the NFL ever could do on its own.

See, the NFL is in a shaky position with this investigation stuff. Remember, in the wake of the Ray Rice video in 2014, the league established a new personal conduct policy that was supposed to get tougher on cases of violence against women? As part of that revamped policy, the league gave itself the responsibility of investigating such cases on its own, independent of law enforcement, and assessing penalties even in cases where the legal system did not.

The problem is, the league doesn’t have the power that a government or a police force has to subpoena evidence or compel testimony. Even if they were willing or able to procure these types of hotel-camera videos as successfully as TMZ does, there would still be dozens of other holes in any such NFL investigation. In Hunt’s case, sources say, the NFL couldn’t get the alleged victims to talk to them and couldn’t get the video from the hotel or from the Cleveland Police Department.

Which means, if the player isn’t being truthful about what happened, the league doesn’t have a whole lot on which to base a conclusion. Which obviously puts the league and its teams in a bad spot when, inevitably, more evidence comes out.

So the message the Chiefs sent by releasing Hunt tells players who might find themselves in this situation in the future that they’d better cooperate. The Chiefs established a previously unheard of consequence for a player of Hunt’s caliber that should serve as a deterrent to those who might think they could lie and still avoid being caught. It doesn’t matter how good you are, how young you are, how important you are to the team … you lie about violence against women, you can lose your job.

Will it work? Who knows. There are still way too many messy tendrils of this thing to tie together. The Chiefs and the NFL aren’t all of a sudden going to be credible with the public on the issue of violence against women just because the Chiefs cut Hunt. The Chiefs still employ wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who in 2015 pled guilty to domestic assault and battery by strangulation of his pregnant girlfriend while he was in college. The Chiefs picked Hill in the fifth round in 2016, well aware of a police report in which Hill’s then-girlfriend, Crystal Espinal, said (among other things) that Hill put her in a headlock and punched her in the stomach. They defended the pick right after they made it in a draft-weekend news conference in which they attempted to assure their fans that they’d investigated Hill’s situation thoroughly.

“We feel good that he’s trying to right a wrong, a big wrong,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of Hill at the time. “But he’s trying to do better, and be a better person for it. And that part, we feel very confident in.”

The drafting of Hill and the Chiefs’ defense of it, as so often happens in these cases, largely ignored the victim’s story and instead focused on the abuser’s. As such, it stands as an example of how far the league still has to go on issues of domestic abuse and violence against women. Hill is fast as a comet, so he gets his high-profile second chance. But these cases keep coming up. Ezekiel Elliott served a six-game suspension last year after a yearlong investigation into allegations of domestic violence. Jameis Winston served a three-game suspension this season after he was accused of groping an Uber driver. Reuben Foster was cut a week ago following a domestic violence arrest and claimed on waivers by Washington a couple of days later. The NFL isn’t the only professional sports league where talent earns athletes second chances others don’t get, and we’re not here today to proclaim the Chiefs trailblazers of justice simply because they did the right thing in light of Friday’s rotten circumstances.

But strictly from the standpoint of the NFL’s ability to conduct these investigations and enforce any kind of discipline policy regarding violence against women, what the Chiefs did Friday was throw the league a lifeline. The NFL still has so far to go before it’s credible to the public on these matters, and it’s fair to wonder if it can ever get there.

But, one of its teams bailed out the league Friday with a decision that future teams and players might just see as a game-changer.

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