Over the past few days, the outsized and ebullient spectacle of the NFL Draft has been overshadowed by one of the National Football League’s uglier realities: its ongoing problem with domestic violence among its personnel.
On Thursday night, just as the first round of the draft was about to get underway in Nashville, Tennessee, KCTV 5 in Kansas City released audio of a conversation between Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek 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 audio of this disturbing conversation — which Espinal recorded herself earlier this year at an airport in Dubai, and gave to a friend as an “insurance policy” — was released the day after Johnson County District Attorney Mike Rowe declined to press criminal charges against Hill and Espinal in a child abuse investigation. Now, the criminal case against Hill and Espinal has been reopened. The Chiefs have suspended Hill for the time being, though there have been calls for Kansas City to cut ties with Hill immediately.
That such a hue and cry has been raised is understandable — for many, the thought of seeing Hill back on the football field being celebrated for his athletic prowess is stomach-churning, given what has now been disclosed. But a hasty decision may not be the wisest. Completely cutting ties with Hill right now could put Espinal and their son in even more danger, and their safety should be the NFL’s top priority — especially since Kansas City drafted Hill knowing that he had a history of domestic abuse.
Intimate partner violence is more likely to occur when couples are under financial strain, and a 2003 study found that women with unemployed abusive partners were four times more likely to become a victim of lethal violence than women with employed abusive partners.
That statistic alone is reason enough for the NFL and Kansas City to make their next moves on this matter with an abundance of caution. But Hill’s history of abuse — particularly with Espinal — makes this situation even more fragile.
In 2014, Hill was arrested for beating his then-girlfriend Espinal, back when she was pregnant with their now three-year-old son. According to the police report, Hill threw her around like a “rag doll,” punched her two-month pregnant stomach, and left her with cuts and bruises all over her face and neck. She told police back then that this wasn’t the first time he had hit her, it was merely the worst assault so far.
“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,” Hill admitted as a part of his guilty plea. He was sentenced to three years of probation and court-mandated counseling. Espinal signed off on the light sentence.
Today, they’re engaged and Espinal is pregnant with twins.
Most teams wouldn’t touch Hill in the draft because of this. But Kansas City did, drafting him with the 165th overall pick in the 2016 draft. When they drafted Hill, Kansas City head coach Andy Reid made a plea to his fans to have faith in them.
“There has to be a certain trust here, but there’s just things that we can’t go into and go through,” Reid said. “We want people to understand, like [our general manager] said, we’re not going to do anything to put this community or this organization in a bind.”
“We uncovered every possible stone that we possibly could, and we feel very comfortable with that part of it.”
Reid was actually painting this as a redemption story before any of the hard work was done — trying to play it off as if football was really just an afterthought; this was about improving Hill as a man.
“We think there will be a positive end to this,” Reid said. “And I just ask that we let the young man get on with his work and life and help encourage him so we can get a positive out of this. That would be great for humanity itself, and then whatever he does on the football field is icing on the cake.”
On the field, that decision has paid off — he’s made the Pro Bowl every year of his career.
But off the field, Reid and the Kansas City organization have clearly dropped the ball.
Over the past few years, Hill’s story has been touted time and time again as a reason why its worth it to give players second chances. The tidiness of the story was too irresistible to risk peeking behind the curtain and seeing what was really happening.
Now comes the truly hard part. The NFL and Kansas City have enabled Hill over the past three years. There’s been no transparency about the work that Hill has put in to be a better man, about how the organization and league were providing support to Hill and his loved ones. Now, that has to be the priority.
Hill should go on the commissioner’s exempt list, where he will still get paid but won’t be eligible to play. The legal process should play out. The league should spare no expense offering support to Espinal and their family, be it providing her with a security detail or health care or housing or therapy. Hill’s future in the league is complicated — he could be permanently banned due to being a repeat domestic violence offender, he might end up serving time, or he might be a free man who is eligible to return to the field. If that’s the case, any team that does offer Hill a third chance must be fully transparent about the conditions of such a chance, and the ways they are holding Hill accountable.
Yes, cutting all ties with Hill would feel good. That would be the most convenient thing for the league and for fans, just to never have to think about Hill again. But the NFL and Kansas City can’t allow themselves the luxury of making a clean break from Hill. It’s much more complicated than that; and that’s a reality they have to own.