Several people within the sport said Monday they believe it’s likely that the 23-year-old Hunt will play again, given his youth and talent level. He led the league in rushing last season as a rookie and was the NFL’s fifth-leading rusher this season when the Chiefs cut their ties with him.
But NFL teams don’t know how the case will play out from here. Hunt currently is ineligible to play while on the commissioner’s exempt list. If a team were to sign him, he would be on paid administrative leave while on that list. Hunt is facing a potential suspension without pay by the NFL under its personal conduct policy, and the league has not given a timetable for completing its investigation of Hunt and making a decision about a suspension.
Once Hunt’s playing status is clarified, NFL teams will face a quandary about whether to sign him, weighing his potential on-field contributions against his off-field issues.
Several executives with NFL teams said before the news that Hunt went unclaimed that they were not interested in acquiring his playing rights, but were not certain about the approach that other franchises would take. They declined to speculate publicly about the chances of Hunt resuming his NFL career next season.
“He’s a very good player, obviously,” one of those executives said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized by his team to comment publicly on such a sensitive topic. “But it’s really an ownership-level decision for any team.”
One agent who deals regularly with a large number of NFL front offices said his understanding was that several teams considered a possible claim of Hunt but were wary of the public backlash that would have resulted.
“If you claim him now, you get the controversy right away while he’s not helping you as a player,” the agent said. “He’ll play again. He’ll play next season, after he serves his [potential] suspension and things calm down a little bit.”
Hunt became a free agent after no team put in a waiver claim by Monday afternoon’s deadline. The wait-and-see approach taken by NFL teams with Hunt came in contrast to the Washington Redskins’ decision last week to claim linebacker Reuben Foster off waivers. Foster had been released by the San Francisco 49ers following an arrest in Tampa on a domestic violence charge.
Foster is also on the commissioner’s exempt list and is facing a potential suspension under the personal conduct policy, and is ineligible to play for the Redskins. The Redskins inherited Foster’s existing contract from the 49ers and currently are paying him not to play. They have faced intense criticism for their decision to add Foster.
The Hunt case has played out in the aftermath of that. The Chiefs announced Friday night they would release him, soon after the NFL placed him on the exempt list. The Chiefs’ move became official Saturday.
Former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice has not played in the league since being suspended in 2014 after video surfaced of him striking a woman, then his fiancee and now his wife, in a hotel elevator in Atlantic City. His indefinite suspension later was overturned on appeal but no NFL team signed him.
However, Rice was an older player who was, unlike Hunt, already considered to be in on-field decline when that incident occurred. Hunt undeniably is a star player with the potential for productive seasons in his future, if he is given another chance to play.
Former Green Bay Packers executive Andrew Brandt wrote on Twitter after Hunt was not claimed: “Too toxic now. But he’ll play again after some time.”
Under the modified guidelines enacted by the NFL in 2014, a six-game suspension without pay is the baseline penalty for a player involved in a domestic violence incident. But the policy allows for the suspension to be longer or shorter than that, depending on circumstances.
Hunt, through the NFL Players Association, has the right to appeal being placed on the exempt list. But such an appeal would be made to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, making it unlikely to be successful. The NFLPA and Hunt also could appeal any eventual suspension to Goodell.
The union challenged the league in court in a series of disciplinary cases in recent years. Most notably, the NFLPA managed to delay the onset of suspensions of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. But in both cases, the league prevailed on appeal and enforced the suspensions, strengthening Goodell’s authority in player discipline.
More recently, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston served a three-game suspension this season under the personal conduct policy without appealing. There has been speculation that Hunt might accept any penalties without appeals to keep the process from dragging on indefinitely. He said during a televised interview Sunday that he was in the wrong and the Chiefs were justified in releasing him after saying that he hadn’t been truthful in previous conversations with the team about the February incident.
“The Chiefs are right,” Hunt told ESPN. “I didn’t tell them everything. I don’t blame them for anything. My actions caused this. I wish I could apologize to them and let them know there’s no hard feelings between me and the Chiefs. I love the program and the people there. I just want to take this time to better myself.”
The NFL’s investigation reportedly includes a June incident in Ohio in which Hunt is accused of punching a man. There also were multiple reports Monday about Hunt being among a group of men accused by a man of punching him during a January incident at a Kansas City nightclub and knocking him temporarily unconscious. Hunt has not been charged with a crime in either incident.