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The Kareem Hunt Scandal Shows the NFL Hasn’t Learned Anything Since Ray Rice

For all the league’s assurances since 2014 about having stronger enforcement and more robust investigative powers, a team once again took decisive action against a player accused of violence only because of  a video released by TMZ

Getty Images/NFL/Ringer illustration

This is not a time to praise the Kansas City Chiefs. Their move to release star running back Kareem Hunt after TMZ published a video of him striking and kicking a 19-year-old woman in a Cleveland hotel in February is surprising only because of the irresponsible way cases involving violent behavior have been handled by NFL teams in recent years.

The Chiefs made the only move that made sense after a violent video of one of their stars dominated the news cycle, releasing on Friday night one of the top running backs in the sport that helped them become one of the top teams in the NFL. It was the essential step in a shameful episode but it will not be the last. This is probably not the end of a scandal because it has a chance to be the start of one — one about a league that apparently hasn’t improved its investigative skills. Friday’s events answered one question: what the Chiefs would do with Hunt. Plenty remain: Why is TMZ still better at obtaining video of NFL players than the league or its teams? What version of events did Hunt actually share with the Chiefs, since the team said in its statement about his release that he was not truthful in his talks with the team? Has the NFL learned anything since a wave of domestic violence scandals engulfed the sport four years ago? Sadly, we know the answer to that last one.

It is remarkable how many parallels there are to the Ray Rice case, which seemed like it changed everything in 2014, but clearly changed nothing. TMZ obtained video of both incidents, and in both instances the team and league stressed that the video provided new information. (In the Rice case, NFL Media reported that “the Ravens heard a ‘softer’ version of the events included on the videotape.”) In both cases, the NFL said it tried to get the hotel video but was rebuffed.

There’s one more parallel: In both instances, the NFL, which took in around $14 billion last year and can basically put as much money into investigating violent incidents as it wants, looks clueless.

Beyond Hunt, the NFL still has a massive problem on its hands. In the aftermath of the Rice saga, it built a system designed to investigate cases and make sure that TMZ doesn’t do its investigating for the league. Commissioner Roger Goodell hired Lisa Friel, the former head of the sex-crimes unit in the New York District Attorney’s office, to lead investigations. It’s been four years, and TMZ is apparently still the NFL’s best investigator. There were dozens of lessons to learn after the Rice case, but one of them, at the very least, should have been to do everything possible to view the videotape and make decisions off of it, because someone will get it otherwise.

I covered the Rice ordeal closely. I was at the owners meetings in the weeks after the news broke, and talked to owners and league officials throughout. What was surprising was the posture they took in those days, which is to say they knew the NFL could keep their massive television ratings and revenue no matter what scandal hit them. Not just Rice, but any scandal. Goodell has been weakened since 2014 — by Deflategate, by an anthem policy debacle, by a feud with Jerry Jones — but he’s still unlikely to lose his job over any scandal, and that is in large part because no scandal has had much of an impact on the league’s bottom line.

The NFL generates scandal more than any other league. When I ask people in the league office why this is the case, they offer some hollow explanations: There are more players than in other sports, there’s more off time, and other such structural issues. None of that explain why the league office handles problems so poorly, or why they get their information from TMZ. Ratings went up after the domestic violence scandals of 2014, which included domestic violence incidents involving Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald, and a child abuse charge for Adrian Peterson. This is why the league hasn’t improved in this area: Scandals are handled poorly precisely because the league thinks its product is scandal-proof. There were signs the NFL hadn’t learned anything: The league bungled a Josh Brown misdemeanor domestic violence charge that resulted in an initial, inexplicable one-game suspension, with the kicker later being cut and suspended six more games after more and more evidence came out. The Chiefs themselves still employ Tyreek Hill, who pleaded guilty to punching and choking his pregnant girlfriend in 2015 while in college.

What happens next in Hunt’s career will be a litmus test for how much shame the league is willing to accept. Rice never got another workout. However, he was a dramatically worse player than Hunt at the time of his release, averaging 3.1 yards per carry in the last year of his career. He was 27 in 2014 and was reinstated in December of that year, though no teams took an interest. Hunt is 23 years old and was helping one of the best teams in football to a potential Super Bowl. The Washington Redskins disgraced themselves this week when they signed Reuben Foster just days after he was arrested on a domestic violence charge and cut by the 49ers. The Redskins, who couldn’t explain their decision with any coherence, put their credibility on the line for Foster, who ranks 77th among linebackers according to Pro Football Focus’s grading system. Given that teams will risk so much for a player like Foster, a depressing number of general managers will likely have to be talked out of signing Hunt.

In the short term, that won’t matter. Hunt has been placed on the Commissioner Exempt list, meaning he can’t play, practice, or attend games. Even if a GM gave in to his dumbest impulses, practicality won’t allow it for this season. The NFL said that its investigation began after the February incident and will now include the new information. Even as a cynical observer, I cannot imagine a team signing Hunt this season. He’ll likely be suspended for at least six games, the standard set in 2014 for Rice’s case. That was before the elevator tape came out, but after his initial two-game suspension was deemed too light. Hunt will probably get workouts sometime in 2019. The NFL wants us to believe it’s changed. The league office wants us to believe it’s gotten much better at investigating such scandals. Yet four years after Ray Rice, the only way to know what a player actually did is still to check TMZ.