Back in 2014, shortly after the Ray Rice domestic violence scandal, The New Yorker ran a cover drawn by beloved and legendary cartoonist Barry Blitt. Blitt, who admitted he didn’t actually pay much attention to football, drew a picture of a running back carrying the ball down the field in full sprint … with a gaggle of police in hot pursuit behind him. The implication was clear: NFL players are on the run from the law as much as they are from defenders, and the NFL is failing because of their inability to get all the criminals out of their sport. The Rice incident was that year’s iteration of what has become an annual tradition in the NFL — a controversy that seems to shake the league to its core, followed by the league bouncing back.
The core idea of Blitt’s evocative cartoon — that the players must be policed by the league itself, that the league has an obligation to run a private justice system — has for years been accepted as common wisdom in many circles. Recall how Michael Vick, in the wake of his dog-fighting scandal, was reinstated to the sport by commissioner Roger Goodell with a letter that began, “I accept that you are sincere when you say that you want to, and will, turn your life around, and that you intend to be a positive role model for others. I am prepared to offer you that opportunity. Whether you succeed is entirely in your hands,” a tone that positioned Goodell — a bureaucrat whose only job is to make as much money for the 32 NFL owners as possible — somewhere between father figure, Judge Judy, and God. The NFL needs to Lay Down the Law. Those players need to be Put In Line.
It is worth remembering, however — in the wake of another high-profile domestic violence incident involving now-former Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt that exploded over the weekend — that the idea that NFL players are prone to criminal behavior is decidedly, definitely not true. A 2014 FiveThirtyEight study showed NFL players, when compared to men aged 25–29 in the country on the whole, are dramatically less likely to commit crimes, particularly drug-related, DUI, burglary, and assault charges. NFL players commit crimes at 13 percent of the national average, and while certain crimes have a closer ratio, including domestic violence (which is still just 55 percent of the national average), still, across the board: NFL players aren’t criminals. They likely have a lower rate of criminal activity than people at your job do. Obviously, one incident of domestic violence is too many. But the idea that this is an epidemic is a matter of misperception rather than fact … and the NFL, as usual, has itself to blame.
Which is to say: When stories like Hunt’s take over the news cycle, remember that the NFL doesn’t have a domestic violence problem; it has an NFL problem. The NFL’s haphazard lack of urgency in its approach ends up giving the impression that domestic violence is more prevalent in the NFL than it actually is, and that the NFL still, somehow, doesn’t care enough to do their due diligence in punishing abusers. TMZ published a video Friday of Hunt punching and kicking a woman in a Cleveland hotel back in February, and the Chiefs — a first-place team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, a team for whom Hunt was the leading rusher — cut him the very next day. It leaked quickly that the NFL had already known about the video, as did the Chiefs, who tried to obtain it from the hotel until the NFL told them to back off while it conducted its investigation. The NFL says it was unable to procure the video. Cleveland law enforcement said they never got it either, largely because the case was a misdemeanor rather than a felony, and thus, not actively pursued. But TMZ got its hands on the video and published it. According to ESPN, the NFL’s “investigation” didn’t involve interviewing either Hunt or the woman involved. Once again, the NFL was playing catch-up.
The Chiefs say that Hunt lied to them about the incident and was cut for not “being truthful,” though after the Chiefs’ game Sunday, star quarterback Patrick Mahomes said he was okay with Hunt being cut because “we don’t do those things.” But, as usual, and just like the Ray Rice case, no movement came from the NFL or the teams involved until there was an incredibly disturbing video, despite reports at the time of the incident. This time, the Chiefs, unlike the Ravens with Rice, cut ties with Hunt immediately. But their response was telling: We wanted to investigate this, but the NFL said to back off; the Athletic reported that the Chiefs “were told by the NFL to stop pursuing it later in February once the league began its investigation.”
Now, the Chiefs’ lack of investigation might have also had something to do with Hunt’s league-leading 1,327 yards rushing last year. (Hunt’s interview yesterday seemed to be an attempt to smooth the path for a return with another team, maybe even the Chiefs, after his inevitable impending suspension is over.) But the NFL is the organization that is supposedly responsible for figuring out these cases, the ones trying to head off the scandals at the pass. But they botched this investigation in the exact same way they did the Rice one. As ESPN’s Ian O’Connor pointed out, four years ago, Robert Mueller (the man who was in charge of looking into what the NFL got wrong in the Rice investigation and is now in charge of … a different investigation) “identified a number of investigative steps that the League did not take to acquire additional information about what occurred inside the elevator.” This is almost word-for-word what went down with Hunt: The NFL heard about the incident, did a cursory look around and then walked away … again, without even interviewing Hunt himself. (Hunt even got in another fight in June, and that didn’t lead to any follow-ups either.)
And this is the issue with the NFL here. It is not that it has failed to stop the (first-time) domestic abuser in its midst: that would be nearly impossible to do for anyone in any field without some sort of Minority Report–esque precog technology. But what they’ve done is, faced with another incident — involving the most high-profile player since Rice — they dawdled, they were lackadaisical in pursuit, and, most importantly, they discouraged anyone else from pursuing the matter. All this did was lead to this moment, when they are supposedly taken aback by video of the violent incident — which, again, the NFL knew existed — and they have another self-constructed public relations fiasco on their hands. And, more to the larger point, it makes it look like the NFL’s domestic violence problem is only getting worse — so bad, in fact, that even the NFL and the teams involved can’t keep up with it.
The last time the NFL was caught this far behind, with Rice, it reacted with a wag-the-dog investigation into the inflation levels of Tom Brady’s footballs that, had such a regular apparatus been used in this case, might have gotten that video months ahead of TMZ and handled the Hunt situation in a much less fire-drill fashion. (Deflategate might have gotten Bostonians furious at Goodell for generations, but it sure did get people to stop talking about Rice.) There might not be a handy distraction again this time, during a season in which ratings have bounced back up and the quality of play has improved. There are not many Kareem Hunts in the NFL. But the NFL, one more time, has made it look like there are. Prepare for another “high-profile” crackdown on a problem that might not truly exist, and one that’ll likely fail anyway. The Goodell note telling Hunt that he accepts that Hunt is sincere in wanting to turn his life around and that he intends to be a positive role model for others is surely just a few years away. Goodell will be your father figure and judge. Eventually.