On Monday, 610 AM in Kansas City published a fuller version of audio first obtained and reported by KCTV-5, in which Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill can be heard telling his fiancée, Crystal Espinal, “You need to be terrified of me too, bitch.” The extended audio, to my ears, wasn’t newsworthy. It sounded like more of the same: Espinal confronts Hill, saying he has hurt her and their son, and Hill either deflects or denies it. Hill also has denied any violence through his attorney.
Despite this just being more painful details on top of all the other already-public awful details, a lot of editors seemed to feel that they couldn’t ignore the recording. The old adage, a good one, is lead with the news. But what do you do when there isn’t really much that’s new?
You can fill out your stories with background, and at this point there’s more than enough background on the Hill case. But headlines are a different matter, and by their very function they demand new information. So even though Hill has previous and repeatedly denied violence, you end up with headlines like these: “In recorded conversation, Tyreek Hill denies 2014 assault he pleaded guilty to” on ProFootballTalk; “Tyreek Hill denies harming girlfriend in 2014 domestic violence incident: 610 audio” on the Kansas City Star’s website; “Tyreek Hill Denies 2014 Dom. Violence In New Audio ... ‘I Didn’t Touch You.’” on TMZ; “In Full Audio, Chiefs’ Hill Denies Assaulting Fiancee” on ESPN; “Tyreek Hill denies 2014 assault in new audio: ‘F—king ruined my life” on the New York Post’s website, and “Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill Denies Abusing Son, Fiancee in New Extended Audio Recording” on Bleacher Report.
(It’s worth noting that at many publications, though not all, reporters do not write their own headlines, and so it’s not fair to assume fault lies with the bylined writers in this instance. They are just as likely to be written by an editor or copyeditor.)
Is the denial news? No. Earlier this year, an investigation was opened up into possible abuse of the couple’s young son. It’s no longer active, with prosecutors in the Kansas City area standing by their statement that they couldn’t definitively prove which parent had hurt the boy. Through every report on that investigation, Hill’s lawyer has denied any violence. You also could hear Hill saying “I didn’t do nothing, that’s sad bro,” in the audio pieces published by KCTV in April, along with Espinal pushing back and saying that Hill had once punched the child in the chest. Hill denying hurting his son just isn’t new.
Then there’s the issue of the facts of a previous domestic violence case, which Hill also spends some time on the tape saying is a lie. In that 2014 case, Hill was charged with felony domestic abuse by strangulation for allegedly choking and punching a then-pregnant Espinal. He pleaded guilty to domestic abuse, but had prison time deferred in return for participating in an anger management course, a batterer’s intervention program, and either enrolling in school or getting a full-time job. He also signed a statement saying he put Espinal in a headlock. In open court, on the day he agreed to the plea, Hill told the judge, “I did something I shouldn’t have done. I let my feelings take control of me.” His defense attorney, as quoted in the Oklahoman, said Hill “took responsibility, he said he was sorry. He’s ready for this unfortunate situation to be behind him, to move on with his life and to begin the next chapter.” The case was expunged in 2018. If Hill was in any way coerced to plead guilty to a crime he asserts he did not commit, he has never said so publicly.
But the headlines themselves also end up taking a lot of important context out of the conversation. Here is how the conversation goes in the audio.
Hill: “That 2014 (bleep)? That (bleep) is old. O.D. That’s a lot too. On me, that’s a lot.”
Espinal: “But you sitting here and calling me a bitch and everything else ...”
Hill: “But that’s what you is, bro. You (bleeping)ing ruined my life when you lied on me in 2014. I’m still not over that.”
Espinal: “How did I lie about ...”
Hill: “Because I don’t touch you in 2014. And I can put that on everything I love, bro. That’s the real truth.”
Espinal: “OK, and then saying that you’re gonna take, get (beeped) custody of (beep) that not gonna do ...”
Hill: “That’s the real truth.”
The conversation stops for them to talk to people in the airport about where they go. Any talk about 2014 picks up again afterward with Hill talking.
Hill: “I’m really mad, bro, because you ruined my life when you lied on me in 2014, bro. And if you want to rewind that night, we can rewind that night too (bleeped) You was in my house, and did I pick you up and slam you? Hell no. I picked you up and put you out my door and after that you left. And on my son you did that, bro. And then when you get in the courtroom you want to sit up there and (bleeped) cry on the stand, ‘He hit me.’ Man. Come on, bro.”
Espinal: “Then where did the bruises come from, Tyreek?”
Hill: “Did I hit you?”
Espinal: “Where did the bruises come from?”
Hill: “Did I hit you, though?”
Espinal: “I’m asking you, where did the bruises come from?”
Hill: “Did I hit you? Did I hit you, though? Did I hit you? Tell the truth. Tell me the truth in my eyes right now.”
Espinal: “You’re not thinking about ...”
Hill: “Look at me, look at me.”
[In the audio, Hill goes on to challenge every detail Espinal recalls about that night—from what they were doing, to why they fought, to if they saw a movie—repeatedly talking over her. The conversation shifts, then comes back to the topic.]
Hill: “... Then I put you outside.”
Espinal: “No, you questioned me about it. You were like why is this person duh duh duh duh.”
Hill: “Did I ever punch you though? Did I ever punch you in your face, in your lip? Did I ever? No. I did not.”
Espinal: “You had your hand around my neck.”
Hill: “No I did not, bro. No I didn’t. And that’s the sad part. That we. No. Now I want you to sit on this flight and think about that, that night. How about that? Since you want to bring something up.”
Hill does not mention in the audio that he was charged with strangling Espinal, which is not hitting a person. Susan B. Sorenson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Ortner Center on Family Violence, told Jezebel last year that strangulation is a “particularly pernicious form of intimate partner violence,” later adding that it is “a form of abuse that can be used repeatedly, often with impunity. Again, because it’s difficult to document the injuries.”
The audio already has kicked off another round of sports talk about what Hill did and didn’t do; the station that published the audio spent 25 minutes on that exact topic going over every word, spitting out theories that start with “what I believe happened was,” and weighing in on who they wanted to believe. A league source already has told ESPN that NFL investigators have the audio and are “factoring it into their discussions on potential discipline for Hill.” Kansas City fans looking for shreds they can cling to so they can accuse KCTV of doctoring the tape—as opposed to sitting with Hill’s conduct on the tape—are already out in full force even though there’s nothing new on the tape, except getting to hear more denials from a man who has already issued denials.
Neither you, nor I, nor any sports talk radio host will ever know definitively what happened between Hill, Espinal, and their young son. Neither will the NFL, although that won’t stop the league from acting like judge and jury. But reporters and fans didn’t learn anything truly new from this latest audio. What they should remember though is, no matter the circumstances, a denial doesn’t equal absolution.