Giving Kareem Hunt a second chance in the NFL is not just the right thing to do; it’s the only thing to do. The alternative is to designate him incurable, a lost cause at age 23. It’s to say that his character is permanently set, and he’s incapable of making a willful, better choice. That’s not right, and it’s not true.
The social media mob outrage at the Cleveland Browns for signing Hunt to a one-year contract is understandable, but that outrage is less about Hunt as a known individual than about the league’s creepy double standard when it comes to offenses against women. It’s about teams that sneeringly auction off cheerleaders, and sign women-beaters and gropers, while they shun social activist Colin Kaepernick for life. Yes, that’s infuriating. But separate Hunt’s case from your cynicism about the league.
What’s really best for everyone concerned? A hypocritical banning by the NFL that leaves a young man at a dead end? Or conditional re-employment, which allows him to make reparation, and, hopefully, become a credible messenger that violence is not a reflex but a repairable trait?
I’ll take the second option, please. Speaking as a woman.
Maybe it won’t turn out that way. Maybe Hunt will lash out again the way he did in that hotel hallway video, when he threw his 215 pounds of running back at a woman who wouldn’t leave. Hunt likely will incur a significant suspension from the commissioner for that, as he should. But any expert on violence will tell you that deterrence and stiff sentencing don’t solve the propensity to violence. The penalty has to be coupled with treatment, and real repentance, and incentive among other complicated factors.
Something in Hunt’s statement on signing with the Browns sounded like more than the usual rote expression of penitence you hear from players trying to get back on the field. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the promising signs of someone who is willing to change include: admitting fully what they have done without excuse or blame, recognition that physicality is a choice, willingness to identify and alter how they respond to grievance and conflict, and the understanding that they won’t be able call themselves “cured,” but rather have years of work ahead of them. Now listen to Hunt.
“What I did was wrong and inexcusable,” he began.
It was a good start. But even better was what came next.
“I am committed to following the necessary steps to learn and be a better and healthier person from this situation,” he said. “I also understand the expectations that the Browns have clearly laid out and that I have to earn my way back to the NFL. I’m a work in progress as a person, but I’m committed to taking advantage of the support systems I have in place to become the best and healthier version of myself.”
You don’t usually hear a young NFLer who led the league in rushing admit he’s unhealthy. They tend to be too vested in their power and grown-manness for that, too alternately entitled, yet insecure and shame-averse. It’s a vulnerable admission. Maybe it was just calculated lip service. But it’s better to hear it with a little hope rather than with pessimism.
If this deal is going to work, it’s not just Hunt who has to be sincere: The Browns had better be, too. We’ll see. General Manager John Dorsey insisted the Browns “understand and respect the complexity of questions and issues in signing a player with Kareem’s history and do not condone his actions.” That’s a good start, too: NFL teams don’t usually admit to complexity, because they’re too busy selling primary-color narratives to the public like children’s literature.
In Hunt’s case, the complexities include his father’s long record of criminal offenses and recent arrest for crack dealing. But Dorsey and the Browns have some reason to believe Hunt can succeed with the right treatment. In 2016 when Dorsey was an executive with the Kansas City Chiefs, he drafted Tyreek Hill, 24, despite a conviction for attacking his pregnant girlfriend. Hill has done three years of intense therapy, counseling, probation and community service, and he has been a startling professional and personal success for the Chiefs thus far.
The NFL deserves plenty of criticism for its wildly inconsistent morals. But its tendency to provide second chances is one of the best things about it, an essentially good and right impulse. Sure, some teams are self-serving about it, and sometimes players squander the chance. But surely, it’s not wrong to hope that Hunt, or 24-year-old linebacker Reuben Foster, signed by the Washington Redskins after a domestic violence allegation, can follow the same promising track that Hill has so far.
Second chances aren’t earned, of course. They’re given, bestowed, a form of luck or grace that not one of us could have survived our mistake-ridden young adulthoods without. They’re critical. Otherwise we’d all be doomed; we’d sink under the lurking question of what’s escapable, the fear that real change isn’t possible for certain people from certain places. Without second chances, there is no proving that people change. But they do, all the time, especially young ones, with effort. They recover from the most awful problems. So, this particular woman is not sorry that Hunt has a second chance, or Foster, or Hill either. In fact, she will root for them, for all she’s worth.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.