When news broke that the Kansas City Chiefs signed wide receiver Tyreek Hill to a contract extension earlier today, NFL reporters confirmed what everyone following the sport should have suspected for some time. The team did what professional sports teams do with such news, issuing a press release packed with stats illustrating how successful Hill has been on the field. They published a photo of Hill, too, with one hand making a V and the other holding a pen over the contract paperwork, a team helmet strategically placed in the corner. As always in professional sports, the message was nothing but good news to see here.
The press release left out, as it naturally would, that Hill is still part of a child welfare investigation being done by the Kansas Department of Children and Families; Kansas DCF spokesman Mike Deines said Friday that the investigation is ongoing. The press release also left out that a criminal investigation was done earlier this year into possible abuse of Hill’s young son, although that case is no longer active after prosecutors said they couldn’t definitely prove which parent had hurt the boy. Nowhere in the press release was mention of the audio in which Hill tells his ex-fiancée and mother of his son, Crystal Espinal, “You need to be terrified of me too, bitch.”
The NFL did an investigation of its own, which turned out to be meaningless. Investigations involving child welfare traditionally are as a rule sealed off to protect the privacy of the child and, with nothing to review beyond the information filling out various blogs on the subject, the NFL chose to do nothing.
The lack of a suspension for Hill illustrated, once again, the core hypocrisy of player conduct policies as we know them in pro sports. Such policies aren’t about making players better people so much as they are about public relations. Kareem Hunt got suspended for eight games not because he punched a woman, but because he punched a woman on camera. Jimmy Smith got suspended four games for emotional abuse because there were court documents that left a public paper trail. The NFL could have found a way to suspend Hill for the audio alone—surely telling the mother of your son, “You need to be terrified of me too, bitch” also “undercuts public respect and support for the NFL”—and yet also found a way not to. The NFL’s leaders licked a finger, stuck it in the air, and decided the wind was blowing their way on this one, and it was. Kansas City fans seem extremely excited to have Hill back. As with Ray Rice, the NFL will change its mind only when the public relations consequences get bad enough.
The grand tradition of American sports writing is the take: Tell me what should be done, tell me what to be angry about. There isn’t an answer like that here. A well-meaning legislative policy—protect the privacy of the child—has ended up benefiting Hill and Kansas City immensely. It’s impossible to say what the league should do, here, because the first question must be Is the child safe? Without knowing what is going on in this relationship, which you and I still manifestly do not, there’s no way of knowing if any NFL action would make things better or worse for the boy. As the person who could be issuing a take in this instance, there’s also no way I can know what would make things better for Hill’s son. Anything I said would be, to be blunt about it, pulled directly out of my ass. The same is true of any other sports commenter who holds forth on this case. It’s filling column inches or airtime, nothing more or less. Fundamentally, there’s just nothing much to say.
The question of what to do is no easier. Kicking Hill out of the league would only make it difficult, if not impossible, for him to pay the child support Espinal is seeking in court, and in that way would re-victimize Espinal and their children. (Per the Kansas City Star, Espinal’s attorney, Susanna Coxe, is affiliated with an organization that supports domestic violence survivors.) A lengthy suspension with pay would please some pundits and fans but could have a similar effect on the family, as well as scare other victims into silence by reminding them that speaking up could mean your entire family has less. Domestic violence experts often say the challenge is changing the culture of a community, of working to eliminate sexism, racism, and systemic violence from top to bottom. If one-strike policies or lengthy suspensions did that, the problem would have ended a long time ago.
All that’s left is there to find in the photo and press release that the Chiefs furnished. There’s an excellent wide receiver who wants to play for a lot of money, and a team that wants to go to the Super Bowl. I don’t like any of it. I shiver whenever I see Kansas City fans act like nothing happened or, worse, labor to explain it away as the result of a conniving gold digger setting out to take down an innocent man. There’s no doubt in my mind that Hill would be out of the league if he were just not as good, or trending down instead of up in his stats; that’s how it went for Rice, among others. But how is any of that any different from how Hollywood works, say, with men accused of sexual harassment and assault forging comebacks because there’s still some money left in their images. American forgiveness always has existed along a sliding scale.
Sports sells itself as an escape, a place where fans can feel good in a safe and communal setting, where nothing all that bad can happen, and where the most deserving person almost always wins. That’s always been a fiction, though, because sports are played and watched and sold by human beings, and because every last one of us brings our faults, failures, and darkness to them. In this country, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that one out of every four women and one out of every 10 men experience sexual violence, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. That will happen in pro sports, too, because our country is where those games get played; the difference is if gets out to the press or not. I have no good answers to offer on what can be done about Hill. I cannot tell you how to feel. I can only tell you that I feel awful, and that I have felt awful about players before. I can also tell you that I will remember that feeling every time I see Hill play this season.