When TMZ published a video last Friday showing former Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt shoving and kicking a woman in a Cleveland hotel months earlier, it initiated a wave of public criticism of the NFL, much of it invoking the Ray Rice domestic violence scandal from 2014.
While there are obvious parallels between the two cases — in both, TMZ obtained and released the crucial videos igniting the controversies — there are also fundamental differences that some legal experts say demonstrate the challenges facing the NFL as it tries to investigate allegations of wrongdoing against its players without the legal powers of law enforcement, or an interest in adopting the so-called “checkbook journalism” tactics of TMZ.
“I don’t know why we would want professional sports leagues to act like TMZ,” said Gabe Feldman, law professor and director of the sports law program at Tulane Law School. “The more difficult question is why are these cases not prosecuted by law enforcement. It’s unfair to hold professional sports leagues to a higher standard than our criminal justice system, and to expect professional sports leagues to do a better job investigating them than law enforcement.”
In the Rice case, there was no dispute over the then-Baltimore Ravens running back’s guilt — he admitted he had punched his then-fiancee and knocked her unconscious inside the elevator of an Atlantic City hotel in February 2014 — and the NFL made no effort to obtain the video of the attack from law enforcement. Commissioner Roger Goodell then waited five months after the incident to punish Rice with a two-game suspension that was criticized as outrageously mild when TMZ released the video of the attack.
Hunt, on the other hand, denied he had assaulted a 19-year-old woman outside his Cleveland hotel room in February. The NFL tried to get the security video from Cleveland police, but the agency didn’t have it because officers never requested it before deciding not to file charges against Hunt. The NFL also tried to get the video directly from the hotel, Metropolitan at the 9, but hotel management refused, the league has said. A spokesman for the hotel has not replied to messages seeking comment.
Some victims’ advocates have said Cleveland police are just as deserving of blame, if not more so, as the NFL for failing to handle the Hunt case properly. A 911 caller and the woman Hunt assaulted both implored police officers to review the hotel security footage that night, according to officer body cam videos and 911 calls released last week, but officers never did. On Wednesday, Cleveland police announced it had opened an internal investigation into how its officers handled the incident.
“This is appalling . . . It was a huge failure on the part of law enforcement,” said Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women.
Van Pelt is among those who have suggested the NFL should resort to paying for evidence in certain cases, which is presumably how TMZ obtained the Hunt video. According to a 2016 New Yorker article, TMZ paid someone, likely a hotel employee, nearly $90,000 for the Rice video. TMZ did not reply to a request to comment.
Some legal experts, however, cautioned against the NFL setting the precedent of paying for evidence in investigations of its players.
“There’s nothing purely illegal about paying for evidence, but it’ll be attacked by the union, it’ll be attacked by lawyers for the players . . . and I don’t think it’ll play well in the court of public opinion, which is really what the NFL cares about here,” said Mark Conrad, director of the sports business program at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business.
Experts could recall only one example of a professional sports league paying for evidence: Major League Baseball, during its investigation of Biogenesis, a Florida anti-aging clinic that supplied several players with banned substances. MLB paid a former Biogenesis employee $125,000 for documents purportedly showing which players took which substances. Lawyers for the players — most prominently, Alex Rodriguez — publicly assailed the league for making the payment, which was among several issues the sides battled in court over for years.
An MLB spokesman did not reply to a request to comment. There have been no public indications since the Biogenesis scandal of MLB paying for evidence in other investigations, and it’s widely assumed the league has abandoned the practice.
Feldman agreed with criticism of the NFL for not interviewing Hunt after the February incident, but noted that, without the video, there’s no guarantee NFL officials would have been able to get Hunt to admit to assaulting the woman. Hunt has acknowledged he lied to the Chiefs about his actions that night, and the Chiefs released him hours after TMZ published the video last Friday.
“If law enforcement doesn’t have the video, and the hotel refuses to provide it, I think there’s a question of what else the league can really do,” Feldman said. “This is a tricky situation, both legally and ethically . . . and I think the league is going to get criticized, regardless of what they do.”