The NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell vowed in 2014, while under fire for their handling of high-profile domestic violence cases, that they would never repeat the same mistakes. Goodell and team owners bolstered the sport’s personal conduct policy, particularly as it related to domestic violence, and said they’d learned their lessons.
For the NFL, the events of the past week have been an unwelcome reminder of that 2014 crisis. Then, the league admitted missteps in its handling of a case involving running back Ray Rice, which was followed by cases involving running back Adrian Peterson and defensive end Greg Hardy.
Now, just when the league was experiencing a rejuvenating 2018 season — with compelling on-field play, soaring interest and television ratings and comparatively little controversy — those 2014 tribulations were revisited in recent days.
On Tuesday, the NFL placed linebacker Reuben Foster on paid administrative leave via the commissioner’s exempt list. He’d just been claimed by the Washington Redskins off waivers, prompting an outcry, after being released by the San Francisco 49ers following his arrest last weekend in Tampa on a domestic violence charge.
On Friday, the Kansas City Chiefs cut ties with standout running back Kareem Hunt, the league’s fifth-leading rusher, just after the NFL had placed him on paid leave. Both actions came hours after TMZ released video from a February incident in a Cleveland hotel showing Hunt shoving and kicking a woman. Hunt was not charged with a crime in the incident, which had been previously reported by media outlets.
It remains to be seen whether the Hunt and Foster cases and the NFL’s handling of them will spark outrage among fans and lead any to turn away from the sport. For now, those in and around the league are left to begin evaluating whether the NFL and its teams learned from the past and handled these cases appropriately.
“It’s too early to know the details of the underlying investigation,” said Gabriel Feldman, the director of the sports law program at Tulane University. “What we’re seeing is another example of how difficult it is to prosecute cases of violence against women. That’s not an NFL problem. It’s not a sports problem. It’s a societal problem.”
For now, there is no known evidence that the NFL mishandled these cases in the way that it admittedly mishandled the Rice case, according to Feldman.
“It’s the question of: Did the league do its due diligence sufficiently in its underlying investigation?” Feldman said in a phone interview Saturday. “Both the team and the league acted quickly [in the Hunt case] once the video came out. Before the video came out, they hadn’t done anything. It’s hard to cast blame on the league at this point. It is plausible that they were unable to find evidence to suspend Hunt.”
A high-ranking official with one NFL team expressed support for the league’s actions.
“Both players [Foster and Hunt] were placed on leave,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “What the Redskins did [by adding Foster], that’s a team decision. The league has no control over that. I don’t know what more could have been done any earlier in the other [Hunt] case. The league said they tried to get the video but couldn’t.”
Other observers were more critical.
“The events of the last week make crystal clear the NFL still has a huge problem with domestic abuse that they are doing little to nothing to properly address,” Shaunna Thomas, executive director of the women’s advocacy group UltraViolet, said in a written statement to The Washington Post. “Once again, the league failed to take action at the proper time and only waited until video leaked to take action. The NFL treats domestic abuse by its players as a PR problem, not a systemic problem throughout the league that they have failed to address.”
The NFL said it had been investigating the incident involving Hunt since February. According to a person familiar with the league’s efforts, the hotel and legal authorities denied the NFL’s requests to see the surveillance video and women involved in the incident did not respond to requests to be interviewed by league investigators.
When the NFL placed Hunt on the exempt list, it cited the “new information that was made public” Friday. The Chiefs said they released Hunt because he had not been truthful in previous conversations with the team’s management about the incident, based on what the video showed.
The release of the video in the Hunt case was reminiscent of the 2014 release by TMZ of video showing Rice striking a woman, then his fiancee and now his wife, in a hotel elevator in Atlantic City. That prompted the NFL to suspend Rice indefinitely, after originally suspending him for only two games, and the Baltimore Ravens to release him. The league’s indefinite suspension later was overturned on appeal but Rice has not played in the NFL since. Goodell called the original two-game suspension erroneous.
In the Rice case, there was report that a law enforcement official sent the video of the incident to an NFL official before it became public. The NFL denied seeing the video before it was released by TMZ. A report by former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III released in January 2015 concluded there was no evidence that the league had seen the video before it became public, but that the NFL “should have done more with the information it had, and should have taken additional steps to obtain all available information” about the incident.
The NFL toughened its punishments for domestic violence cases in 2014, setting a six-game suspension without pay as the baseline disciplinary measure when a player is involved in such a case. It also said it would would conduct its own independent investigations when a player or another employee is accused of misconduct. But the NFL acknowledged at the time that such investigations are problematic.
That was evident again in the NFL’s investigation of Hunt.
“The video is damning,” Feldman said Saturday. “It is problematic that TMZ was able to obtain the video. But there were no charges. The NFL has beefed up its investigative arm, but that remains difficult.”
Much remains to play out. The NFL must decide on possible suspensions for Hunt and Foster. The NFL Players Association must decide whether to challenge any disciplinary measures. Other NFL teams must decide whether to give Hunt a chance to resume his NFL career.
In the meantime, the NFL finds itself in the too-familiar position of being engulfed in controversy, the intensity of which will become more clear in the coming days and weeks.
“You’d like to hope you can avoid these things,” the high-ranking team official said. “But people make mistakes and do bad things, players included. You deal with them the best you can and you hope that’s good enough.”
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