On Friday, the NFL announced that after a four-month investigation, it will not be disciplining Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill for domestic abuse or child abuse because, based on the evidence presently available, Hill did not violate the league’s personal conduct policy.
That available evidence included an audio recording, released publicly by KCTV 5 in Kansas City in late April, of a heated conversation between Hill and his fiancée, Crystal Espinal. In the recording, Espinal tells Hill that their three-year-old son told police investigators, “Daddy punches me.”
“He is terrified of you,” Espinal said.
“You need to be terrified of me, too, dumb bitch,” Hill responded.
The NFL’s decision not to discipline Hill, and the Chiefs’ subsequent statement gleefully welcoming him back to the team, proves once and for all that the NFL’s domestic violence policy is broken beyond repair.
The most clear-cut example of this failure? As part of its inquiry, NFL investigators interviewed Hill for more than eight hours, according to a report by USA Today. Espinal, however, declined to speak with league investigators. Victims don’t trust the NFL, and honestly, there’s no real reason why they should. The lsat time a victim did cooperate with investigators, in the Ezekiel Elliott domestic violence case, the NFL’s suspension of Elliott was fought so vigorously that the trustworthiness and character of the alleged victim was openly debated in court. That alone would be enough to deter any victim from coming forward and cooperating with the league.
In the five years since the Ray Rice video — which showed the Baltimore Ravens running back punching his then-fiancée, Janay Rice, in the face in an elevator in Atlantic City and knocking her out — made international headlines and pressured the league into promising to take violence against women more seriously, the NFL has botched every attempt at disciplining players under its revamped personal conduct policy.
In Hill’s case, things seemed rather straightforward. In March of this year, Hill and Espinal were investigated for battery after their three-year-old son sustained a broken arm. In April, their son was placed into care temporarily because of a result of an emergency hearing conducted by the Kansas Department of Children and Families. On April 24, Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe announced that though he did believe a crime had been committed, there wasn’t enough evidence to press charges.
The following day, the audio of Hill and Espinal’s conversation was released. Espinal recorded the audio herself earlier this year at an airport while the couple was traveling, and gave to a friend as an “insurance policy.”
What made the audio recording so chilling — particularly when Hill directly threatened Espinal — was the fact that this was not the first time Hill had been accused of domestic violence. In college, Hill pleaded guilty to abusing Espinal, who was pregnant with their son at the time.
In 2014, he was arrested for throwing her around like a “rag doll,” punching her in the stomach while two months pregnant, and leaving her with cuts and bruises all over her face and neck. At the time, she told police that this wasn’t the first time he had hit her, though it was the worst assault so far.
With Espinal’s approval, Hill pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years of probation and court-mandated counseling. He was drafted by the Chiefs in the fifth round of the 2016 draft, and has since become a star in the league and heralded as a redemption story. But this incident proved that reality is likely much more complicated than forced narratives.
Earlier this month, KCTV5 released the full version of the audio that Espinal recorded in the airport. In that version of the conversation, Hill accused Espinal of lying about the incident in 2014.
“You f—ing ruined my life and you lied on me in 2014,” Hill told Espinal. “I’m still not over that. I didn’t touch you in 2014.
“You lied on me in 2014. If you want to rewind that night, we can rewind that night, too. You was in my house. And did I pick you up and slam you? Hell no. I picked you up and put you out my door and after that you left.”
Of course, the police report from 2014 details the cuts and bruises on Espinal when she showed up at the emergency room. And, as part of his plea deal, Hill was fairly explicit about the nature of the abuse.
“I was in a fight with my girlfriend that turned physical between us and I wrongfully put (her) in a headlock, putting external pressure on her neck that compressed her airway causing bodily injury,” he said at the time.
The son that Espinal was pregnant with when Hill was arrested in 2014 is the same son whose broken arm triggered this investigation. Espinal is also pregnant again, this time with twins. In his statement on Friday, Hill expressed his commitment to being a good father. The NFL said that the son’s safety was its priority, as well.
“Throughout this investigation, the NFL’s primary concern has been the well-being of the child,” the league said in a statement on Friday. “Our understanding is that the child is safe and that the child’s ongoing care is being directed and monitored by the Johnson County District Court and the Johnson County Department for Children and Families.”
It’s understandable why Espinal did not cooperate with the NFL’s investigation, particularly if she thought that Hill’s job was on the line. And she should not be blamed for staying with him. Abusive relationships are difficult — and often dangerous — to exit. To that end, the NFL and the Chiefs immediately cutting any and all ties with Hill could have made things worse for Espinal and her son, not better.
But it also feels wrong for the NFL — which drafted him knowing he had plead guilty to domestic abuse — to completely let this slide, too. It is bothersome that the NFL’s personal conduct policy couldn’t find cause to to suspend a player who was caught on tape threatening a woman who he previously assaulted. And it is an abject failure that the NFL has alienated victims and survivors in the five years since Rice, instead of building up trust with them and putting proactive measures in place.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell begged fans five years ago to trust the league to get its house in order when it comes to handling domestic violence and sexual assault. The Hill decision is proof that the house has collapsed.