Staring at the shaky, low-fi footage of Kareem Hunt, the star Kansas City Chiefs running back, and watching the violence he’s able to inflict, it’s impossible not to recall Ray Rice.
In 2014, Rice was temporarily run out of football after TMZ published a video of him beating his wife and dragging her limp, unconscious body out of an elevator. Like Rice’s brutal assault, Hunt’s incident was reported months ago and though police body-cam videos came to light in July, the story was barely remembered or remarked on, and definitely not worth examining while the Chiefs were winning gobs of games behind star QB Pat Mahomes.
That is, until Friday afternoon, when TMZ published video showing exactly what transpired.
Early in the morning on February 10, in the hallway of a Cleveland hotel, we see Abigail Ottinger, a 19-year-old Kent State student who had been invited to Hunt’s room. Ottinger is standing outside when a fight breaks out, and despite attempts at restraining him, Hunt violently shoves her to the ground. He then kicks her in the side of the ribs as she struggles to defend herself.
The police arrived shortly thereafter, per Cleveland.com, but no arrests were made nor charges filed, due to conflicting reports provided by Ottinger, Hunt, and his associates who were present. But as was the case with Rice in 2014, actually seeing the violence has made all the difference.
Hunt, 23, was summarily dropped by the Chiefs on Friday night, hours after TMZ’s report. While booting a productive player this quickly is practically unheard of, in a statement, the team said they were releasing Hunt not for what he did to Ottinger, but rather for the false statements he provided to team officials when questioned. That in itself is galling enough, but more to the point, if the video had remained under lock and key, would Hunt be getting ready to take the field this weekend? History, and, well, the Chiefs’ statement seem to suggest he would. Time and time again, and especially when beloved, famous athletes are involved, irrefutable visual proof is required before people—largely men—are willing to believe the victim.
Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon’s accuser was subject to all manner of harassment until video footage was released. In some corners, former Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy was given the benefit of the doubt right up to the point Deadspin obtained photos showing the devastation he inflicted on his then-girlfriend. Even then Hardy still managed to remain employed by the NFL. For years, former New York Giants kicker Josh Brown tormented his wife, even though the NFL possessed all the evidence it could possibly need. The investigation ended up re-victimizing her and making her life far, far worse.
But lest anyone is leaping to congratulate the Chiefs or suggest that the NFL has acted righteously, finally taking a firm stand when it comes to violence against women, there are serious questions which must answered. Specifically, there are questions about the ways the NFL is mirroring the flawed (at best) Rice investigation.
At the moment, the NFL and the Chiefs are claiming that any attempts to watch the tape were summarily thwarted by law enforcement, which of course is the same line the NFL ran with when the Rice video was made public, also by TMZ.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that this time the league really couldn’t get its mitts on the hotel footage nor strong-arm anyone into coughing up a full description of its contents. Okay, sure. But if Schefter and Rapoport’s sources are correct—and given their status as plugged-in information merchants, you can bet these sources come from high up the NFL’s food chain—it means the Chiefs and the NFL knew there was filmed evidence out there, and had to have some idea that it might refute Hunt’s version of what happened.
After all the flack the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL took for believing Rice when he initially downplayed what he had done to his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, why repeat recent history and assume Hunt was telling the truth, as the Chiefs and the NFL seem to have done? Unless, you know, that kind of willful ignorance is beneficial to the league. The NFL’s statement describing the video as “new information” isn’t entirely honest. Clearly, quite a few people seemed to know the tape existed and while many of those individuals couldn’t definitively say what was on it, it’s not like it arrived out of the blue.
Further, if the NFL has been delving into the matter for over nine months without any conclusion, why did Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt (no relation) hand-wave away questions about his prized running back at the start of the season by saying “young men” often fail to make “the best decisions,” and promise that the team’s coaching staff and player-development department would provide all the guidance he needed to avoid a “situation” like this going forward?
“Kareem is a young man, (in his) second year in the league and obviously had a very big year on the field last year,” he said. “I’m sure he learned some lessons this offseason, and hopefully won’t be in those kind of situations in the future.”
And even in an alternate universe where Rice never pummeled his partner and provided a crystal-clear map for how this would play out, how could anyone still be laboring under the delusion that this new tape would never see the light of day?
These are not questions the NFL really wants to answer, and if the Rice investigation sets a precedent, it will move heaven and earth to ensure that it doesn’t have to. It took dogged reporters quite some time before they were able to call the NFL’s bluff and reveal when it wasn’t engaging in obfuscation and misdirection or dragooning Palmer into reciting talking points during a painfully staged press conference.
For the most part, others will do the heavy lifting for the league. Beyond the instinctive desire by both the press and fans to pivot to subjects they know best, like how Hunt’s absence will impact the Chiefs on the field, the NFL has discovered a quite-clever way to avoid questions of complicity altogether: the endless parsing of and focus on its disciplinary actions, which, again, is exactly what transpired in the months following Rice’s series of suspensions.
To a certain degree, yes, this desire is understandable. Fans, and not just Chiefs fans, want in some small way to feel like it’s okay to watch football again—that Hunt’s banishment means justice has been served, and so by weighing the attendant morality of Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game ban versus Jameis Winston’s three-game ban, it can feel like ethical consumption or even that the arc of the NFL universe is bending toward justice.
It isn’t. And granting a multi-billion-dollar business the license to serve as a shadow judiciary will end very, very badly. Suspensions have no political or moral significance, regardless of whether they’re accompanied by well-crafted and thoughtful or execrable public statements, like the Washington Redskins’ ham-fisted rationale for signing linebacker Reuben Foster mere days after he was released following multiple allegations of domestic violence. Teams will employ athletes who will help them win and kitty-corner any and all ethical concerns, full stop. Moreover, these debates only serve to remove the victim(s) from the stage altogether. That too seems inevitable, sad to say.
Much of sports media has proven that it lacks the wherewithal to frame this story in any way other than its own, narrow lens, one in which the victim functions like a speed bump in a great, if flawed, man’s journey. Like Adrian Peterson, who still beats his kids and yet was largely given a glossy sheen in a recent Sports Illustrated profile, Ottinger’s recovery and any trauma she may have suffered will be reduced to a few paragraphs tucked into the tale of Hunt’s arduous road to redemption.
Hunt has already issued an apology, saying: “I want to apologize for my actions. I deeply regret what I did. I hope to move on from this.” He will, and when Hunt is given another shot—and he absolutely will be given a chance by some team—yes, it will be enraging, as if the NFL were engaging in yet another, substance-free branding exercise, like the entirety of its anti-domestic violence campaign.
If only it weren’t so clear what comes next.