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Tyreek Hill is back, and the NFL's discipline policy is as baffling as ever

Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill is expected to report to training camp Friday.
Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill is expected to report to training camp Friday. (Kelvin Kuo/AP)
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The NFL is back, and so — cringe — is Tyreek Hill. The two are tied, sadly, in a complicated knot. It’s difficult to celebrate the early stages of a new season without fretting the uneasy re-emergence of the troubled star wide receiver.

After a disturbing offseason that included a child abuse allegation and police investigation into his 3-year-old son’s broken arm, Hill is free to resume his career with the Kansas City Chiefs. Last week, the NFL opted not to suspend Hill, just as prosecutors in Johnson County, Kan., previously had declined to charge him because of insufficient evidence. Both the league and law enforcement officials stopped short of absolving Hill of any wrongdoing, careful to protect themselves by intimating the case is too muddled to make a definitive judgment.

So, on Friday, he is scheduled to report to Kansas City’s training camp. On Saturday, he will return to practice with a team whose championship aspirations are built around an extraterrestrial offense that Hill elevates with his speed and creative playmaking.

Patrick Mahomes, with limitless zeal and talent, became the face of the franchise in 2018 after his record-setting first season as a starting NFL quarterback. But Hill is the truest representation of the team the Chiefs have created. On the field, they are as fun and carefree as any team the sport has seen. Behind the thrills, however, they are a ticking time bomb of character risks.

Tyreek Hill won’t be suspended, NFL says

This season might be their best chance in 50 years to win a championship. While their eyes are focused on the Lombardi Trophy, they won’t be winning any morality awards. I don’t think their intent is to ignore character and view troubled players as market inefficiencies that give them a team-building advantage. Their situation is much more nuanced and includes Coach Andy Reid’s heartbreaking family history and redemptive desire to be a father figure to players who desperately need one. Where others see headaches, Reid sees potential and hope. But as a franchise, the Chiefs have eschewed caution way too much of late.

They were burned by Kareem Hunt after TMZ released a video last November of the star running back shoving and kicking a woman in a hotel. They ended up releasing Hunt. Three months later, the latest Hill incident started making news. The Chiefs response? On April 23, they gave up three high draft picks to trade for Frank Clark and then gave the defensive end, who was arrested on domestic violence charges and dismissed from the Michigan football team in 2014, a new contract that included $63.5 million in guaranteed money.

Kansas City is either the most understanding organization in football or the most callous when it comes to domestic violence. No matter the Chiefs’ intentions, the cost of doing business in this manner is that they now epitomize the NFL’s long history of cluelessness in curbing the violence of its athletes, particularly toward women.

In a sport that fosters aggression in the workplace and then expects players to push the off-button after hours, some of the issues seem impossible to tame without providing adequate and consistent life-skills training. Although this was a problem long before Roger Goodell became the commissioner 13 years ago, it hasn’t helped that he requested and received extreme disciplinary power, only to use it in such an inconsistent manner that you cannot comprehend the message, if any, that the league is trying to send. Goodell’s desire to have this power was an overreaction to negative publicity of the players’ off-field problems. And in just about every disciplinarian case, he seems to make decisions long after gauging public opinion.

Even though he is so obsessed with protecting the image of the NFL, he still loses because people don’t respect such reactionary leadership. Goodell gave himself a chance to set a standard. In practice, he created a burden. True or not, everything is the commissioner’s fault, and it bothers him. At times, it seems like he is enacting make-up call judgments.

Can’t punish Hill? Okay, suspend Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Jarran Reed six games for a lower-profile incident that happened two years ago. The NFL is soft on domestic violence, and then it’s not. Soft, not. Soft, not. If you can’t send a clear message, I guess it’s better to jam the signal altogether.

Chiefs bar Tyreek Hill from team activities after audio recording surfaces

Of course, Hill’s case was especially complicated. The long and toxic relationship between Hill, 25, and former fiancee Crystal Espinal made it impossible to get to the truth. Four years ago, Hill was kicked off the Oklahoma State football team and later pleaded guilty to domestic assault and battery by strangulation of a pregnant Espinal. He ventured to West Alabama, resurrected his draft stock enough for the Chiefs to take him in the fifth round and became an instant NFL star. Three seasons later, he has amassed 5,125 all-purpose yards, including 3,255 receiving, and 30 career touchdowns. The NFL is currently blessed with many unique, put-’em-in-space hybrid athletes, but few players put as much pressure on a defense as Hill does.

But he’s at least a one-time abuser, and he might be a serial offender. Reid alluded to some rehabilitative efforts that the Chiefs have required of Hill, and the NFL referred to “clinical evaluation and therapeutic intervention.” The NFL made it clear there’s still a chance Hill could be punished for his most recent incident if new information comes to light. There’s also a sense that, with Hill avoiding suspension this time and undergoing treatment, he is on a short leash.

For now, Hill will play. He received the benefit of the doubt despite the 11-minute audio recording of an argument with Espinal. While he didn’t admit to a crime on the tape, he did leave you with one horrifying impression of him. That impression remains three months after an initial release of the recording.

In the most infamous segment, Espinal told Hill their son is terrified of him.

“You should be terrified of me, too,” Hill replied, adding a derogatory five-letter word to maximize the threat.

In the NFL’s eyes, those words weren’t enough to punish him. People often say inappropriate things to each other during arguments. But it was harrowing to listen to Hill, who had admitted in court to abusing the same woman, lose his temper in such a way.

But he is free to play football again, and Kansas City is dreaming the biggest dreams. The Chiefs remain the most exciting team in the NFL, and at the end of this season, they just might be the best, too.

“We’re comfortable with Tyreek coming back here,” Reid said earlier this week.

Of the many words you can use to describe Hill’s return, “comfortable” would be at the bottom of many lists.

Perhaps the Chiefs will be fine. Perhaps Hill, who is playing for a lucrative contract extension, will be on his best behavior. Perhaps their electric style will find a way again to overshadow their character concerns. But they won’t always be comfortable to watch. They won’t be fun and carefree.

Their problems are much heavier now, and at the same time, their potential greatness seems quite fragile.