Lawyers for Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill sent a letter to the NFL today, and in short order reporters obtained and got it out to the public. The letter addresses audio acquired over the weekend by KCTV in Kansas City in which Crystal Espinal, Hill’s fiancée and mother of his son, confronts Hill about how their son got a broken arm, why their son seems terrified of confronting his father, and how she defended Hill from state child welfare investigators. In the audio, Hill threatens Espinal, saying, “You need to be terrified of me too, bitch.” The audio came out a day after authorities in Kansas City said they believed a crime occurred but didn’t have enough evidence to bring charges. After the KCTV report, authorities reopened the criminal case.
The four-page letter Hill’s lawyers sent the NFL is essentially an attempt to recast the conversation in a light more favorable to Hill. In it, attorney N. Trey Pettlon makes the case that Espinal’s questions as heard on the audio were accusatory and leading, that she left out key facts he claims would exonerate Hill, and that she used misleading words to make Hill’s behavior sound worse than it was.
A key point in the letter is when Pettlon includes two text messages that the letter says show Espinal admitting she caused bruising on the child.
It’s worth noting that Hill has the important right to defend himself from such accusations, and that Pettlon’s letter on Hill’s behalf is a valid effort in securing Hill a good defense. However, it’s also important to remember that Pettlon’s responsibilities lay neither with Espinal nor with the truth, and that fact should color just how much deference anyone reading this letter should afford it.
For instance: Do the text messages quoted above vindicate Hill? No. Even if they are real—the letter doesn’t contain screenshots of them from an actual phone—they leave out lots of important context, the sort that might be gleaned from the messages before and after those quoted. The lawyer says review of additional text messages between the two shows “friendly and respectful” conversations, though those aren’t included.
There’s also nothing that might speak to Espinal’s motivations behind sending the messages. She could have said this to protect herself and her son, if, say, she believed the ensuing fight if she didn’t provide Hill this potentially name-clearing paper trail would be even worse. She could have said it to keep the state out of the matter, since criminal investigations of domestic violence—even when well-intentioned—often actually escalate the danger for a person in an abusive relationship. (A 2015 survey done by the National Domestic Violence Hotline found that more than half of all people who had survived domestic violence said “calling the police would make things worse.”) She could have said it to avoid the involvement of the NFL, as unemployment is a risk factor in domestic-violence homicides, and the Chiefs could cut Hill because of the case if they saw fit.
The letter also leaves out an important piece of context included in the KCTV report. Investigative reporter Angie Ricono had this to say before playing the audio: “We’re told this was an insurance policy for Crystal, and that this was recorded as the couple was walking through Dubai International Airport. It was given to a friend for safe keeping. It’s been passed around. Now it’s public.” It’s common advice to tell women in abusive relationships to document the abuse.
As for the threat made to Espinal, Pettlon says it was an “unacceptable comment” that was nevertheless “inconsistent with Tyreek’s conversations with Ms. Espinal over the past several months.” From there, the letter details all the counseling Hill has sought out, which he attends “without fail.” Hill is invested in his son, his lawyer writes, and both parents now know that corporal punishment is wrong.
What does all this mean? Very little other than that Hill has obtained a defense lawyer who is going to defend his client vigorously. One unfortunate consequence of pushing domestic violence into the criminal justice system is that it becomes yet another crime at the whims of that very system, which often creates a fight between dueling lawyers all scrambling to tell the best narrative to serve their own ends. Pushing this into the NFL’s adjudication system, essentially a shoddy recreation of the criminal justice system in how it functions, means this case also will devolve into little more than who can the NFL apportion blame to in a manner that best serves the league’s economic and public relations interests.
Espinal knows the truth, and there are many very good reasons why she might never share it with the state or the NFL. The only thing that should matter is if Espinal feels safe, and, if not, whether she has a support system ready and able to help her get closer to safety. Not NFL suspensions. Not the Chiefs’ Super Bowl odds with or without Hill. Not the usual performance of punishment that writer Natalie Weiner once dubbed “Whack-A-Sexist.”
This year will mark the five-year anniversary of the Ray Rice case, an event in the aftermath of which the league promised it was going to get tough on domestic violence. Back then, two women who had been married to NFL players said the NFL “getting tough” would only make things worse; fear of losing income to fines or suspensions was part of why the women said they stayed quiet for so long.
Those women asked for less talk about punishment and more talk about rehabilitation. One had a prediction: “You will hear of a wife murdered before you hear another one come forward.” Five years later, as yet another NFL player’s domestic violence case devolves into an exercise of calling for a suspension sufficiently long to assuage the guilt of football fans and media and get them back following/covering the sport without worry, her words remain those almost nobody in professional sports wants to hear.
Hill’s lawyers’ letter, as posted online by ESPN, is below.