The NFL suspended Cleveland Browns running back Kareem Hunt for eight games next season without pay, attempting to bring closure to the latest controversy over its disciplinary process and its handling of cases in which players commit violence against women.
The league also cited a June incident at a resort in Ohio in which Hunt, the 2017 NFL rushing champion, was involved. He is alleged to have punched a man in the face.
Hunt was not charged in either case. But the NFL’s personal conduct policy empowers the league to impose discipline if it believes, following an investigation, that such measures are warranted even if there are no criminal charges.
Hunt said in a written statement released by the Browns that he met last week with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and respects the ruling.
“I want to again apologize for my actions last year,” Hunt said. “I know that my behavior hurt a lot of people, and I again apologize to them. I respect the league’s decision on discipline, and I appreciate the time I spent with Commissioner Goodell last week. I’m grateful for my time with the Browns over the last month and thankful to all the people in the organization that have welcomed me. I also appreciate all of the support I received from my union through this process.”
The suspension takes effect just after the NFL’s final roster reductions for the 2019 season and will cost Hunt $303,529, or eight-seventeenths of his 2019 salary of $645,000. He could have appealed the penalty but indicated he plans to waive that right.
In announcing the suspension, the league said: “Hunt has advised the league office that he accepts responsibility for his conduct and the discipline that has been imposed. He has committed to take advantage of available resources to help him grow personally and as a member of the Cleveland community, and to live up to his obligations as an NFL player.”
The NFL Players Association declined to comment. Hunt’s agent, Dan Saffron, said in a written statement that his agency “stands behind our client, Kareem Hunt, in his decision to accept the suspension handed down by the NFL today.”
One person familiar with the league’s disciplinary process characterized the ruling as a settlement. That suggests the possibility that the suspension might have been longer if Hunt had not agreed to waive his appeal, although the person said it was not clear what the length of the suspension would have been otherwise.
The NFLPA went to federal court in recent years in player disciplinary cases involving New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, decrying the investigative and deliberative processes used by the league and Goodell. The union managed to secure court rulings in both cases, delaying the onset of the suspensions. But the NFL prevailed on appeal in each case and enforced both suspensions in full, reinforcing Goodell’s authority under the sport’s system of player discipline.
The league said in its written announcement Friday that its disciplinary ruling “followed a detailed investigation by the NFL, which included reviewing available law enforcement records, video and electronic communications, interviews with numerous witnesses, and multiple interviews with Hunt.”
The NFL defended itself late last year after public criticism by some media members and advocacy groups that its handling of the Hunt case was reminiscent of its admittedly botched handling of a case in 2014 involving former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.
In that case, the league initially suspended Rice for only two games for an incident in which he struck his fiancee (now his wife) in a hotel elevator in Atlantic City. After TMZ released video of the incident, the league suspended Rice indefinitely and the Ravens cut him. The indefinite suspension later was overturned on appeal, but Rice has not played in the NFL since.
In the Hunt case, the NFL placed him on the commissioner’s exempt list and the Chiefs released him after video of the February 2018 incident became public via TMZ. League officials said in December that they opened an investigation immediately after the incident but were unable to obtain the video or to convince women involved to agree to be interviewed.
“I take issue with the fact that things were repeated because they weren’t repeated,” B. Todd Jones, the NFL’s special counsel for conduct, said at a December owners’ meeting in Dallas. “This is not the situation in 2014, other than the fact that there was a video that was disclosed late in the game. We did learn lessons from 2014.”
The NFL’s personal conduct policy sets six games as the baseline suspension for a case in which a player is involved in domestic violence. It gives the league leeway to increase or reduce that based on circumstances.
Hunt, unlike Rice, is set to get another NFL chance. He was signed by the Browns this offseason and was returned to the commissioner’s exempt list pending the league’s decision on a suspension. The signing was criticized by some women’s rights groups and by some supporters of Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who remains out of the league after refusing to stand for the national anthem before games in 2016 to protest racial inequality and police treatment of African Americans.
Browns General Manager John Dorsey, who had an existing relationship with Hunt as the former GM of the Chiefs, defended the decision when he spoke to reporters late last month at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
“Within his person, I think, deep down if you really sit and engage with him, he has a really good heart,” Dorsey said. “He really does. Now, the act he did last year was very egregious. Okay, we all know that. But the degree of remorse that he has shown — and he is so committed to showing through his actions and not his words that, you know what, he’s going to be a better person.”
Hunt said in his written statement Friday, “My commitment to earning the trust of the league, my teammates, the organization and this community through my actions will continue, and I understand there is a lot of hard work ahead of me before I’m able to fully return to playing the game I love.”