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The Tyreek Hill Conundrum: How can we cheer for a player with such a heinous past?

Few NFL players are more exciting than Tyreek Hill—but few have an incident on their record as disturbing as his 2014 domestic violence arrest for choking his pregnant girlfriend. How can fans reconcile both sides of the budding star in Kansas City?

On Dec. 8 at Arrowhead Stadium, Tyreek Hill caught a 36-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith and returned a punt 78 yards for another score as the Chiefs beat the Raiders 21–13 in Week 14’s nationally televised Thursday Night Football game. The latter score clinched the win, putting Kansas City in control of the AFC West, and Hill returned to the sideline amid thunderous cheers of Ty-REEK! Ty-REEK! But how many of those fans chanting Hill’s name were also aware of what happened on Dec. 11, 2014? How many knew and still cheered?

Now the most electrifying returner in the NFL—and one of the league’s fastest players—Hill committed domestic assault and battery by strangulation that night, a felony charge to which he pleaded guilty in August 2015. Now, as one of the most dangerous game-breakers remaining in the playoffs, he will take the turf at Arrowhead for the divisional-round game against the Steelers and again test how we treat domestic abusers who also happen to be star athletes.

Some would argue there is no place in professional sports for a man like Hill. How can he be allowed to make hundreds of thousands of dollars playing a child’s game after beating the mother of his child? Conversely, what about rehabilitation, forgiveness and second chances? Hill has faced legal, social, financial and professional consequences for the past two years. Unlike some other abusers, he has accepted full responsibility.

If there is a path to absolution for Hill, it cannot be traveled in his rookie year. The 2014 incident is still too raw.

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Hill, then a 20-year-old star returner and wide receiver at Oklahoma State, was at his apartment with his girlfriend, who was eight weeks pregnant with their child, when she received a text message from someone saying that Hill had been “hitting on high schoolers.” According to the police report and court testimony, Hill threw her phone and laptop into the hallway and shut her out of his room. When she re-entered, Hill hit her in the face, choked her and punched her in the stomach. He put her in a headlock that put “external pressure on her neck that compressed her airway” according to his statement in his guilty plea.

Officer Justin Reedy of the Stillwater Police Department, who met the victim at the hospital that night, noted her injuries and then went to Hill’s apartment to arrest him. It’s because “[I’m] black and she was white,” Reedy said Hill told him as he was being placed in custody.

In court, the victim courageously recounted the events of that night as she worked with the district attorney while the prosecution negotiated Hill’s sentence. A first-time offender, Hill, who faced one to three years in prison, received a three-year deferred sentence with probation, along with requirements for a domestic-abuse evaluation, an anger management court and a year-long batterer’s program. Cowboys head coach Mike Gundy kicked Hill off the team shortly after the arrest, which came less than a week after his punt-return touchdown beat rival Oklahoma.

The next season, Hill transferred to Division II West Alabama in Livingston, where he scored eight touchdowns as a returner and wide receiver. Then he ran a 4.25-second 40 at the school’s pro day the following spring. One NFC general manager told SI that Hill was a second-day talent but had informed his staff to “not even mess with him.”

Kansas City had a different viewpoint and drafted Hill in the fifth round last April. As a rookie lining up at receiver and returner, the 5' 10", 185-pound Hill scored 12 touchdowns (six receiving, three rushing, two on punt returns and one on a kick return) for the 12–4 Chiefs and was unanimously voted an All-Pro last week. A remarkable rookie season.

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Yet if there were video of Hill committing this heinous act, there is a legitimate chance he is not in the NFL today. Teams will have to grapple with whether or not to draft Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon this spring after video of him punching a woman was released in December. Terrible as it was, Mixon punched a stranger; Hill punched and choked a woman carrying his child.

Former Ravens running back Ray Rice detailed to the league his assault of his then fiancée, but it wasn’t until the team saw the video that he was cut. “The reality is Ray Rice, that situation, is transformative,” one AFC general manager told SI. “Like the fundamental thing is, and this is fair or unfair, but it’s the truth. With [Greg] Hardy there were pictures, with Rice there was video and with Hill there was nothing. And that’s why he’s playing.

“You can make the argument he choked a pregnant woman. There’s no defense of that. They’re all bad, but that might be the worst of the three.”

After Kansas City picked Hill, the team’s Twitter account was flooded with negative comments. In response, general manager John Dorsey said, “I just want everybody to understand that we have done our due diligence with regards to fully vetting each one of our draft-class members,” and coach Andy Reid expressed admiration for how Hill was “trying to make the effort to right the wrong.” Shortly after being drafted, Hill was quoted as saying that “I’ve just got to be better at choosing my friends.” After being questioned by reporters, Hill then said that was “the very wrong way to look at it” and that he blames no one but himself.

The assault in Stillwater has flown largely under the radar this year in the media. In four nationally televised games, Hill’s domestic violence charge was mentioned just once, when NBC’s Mike Tirico, Cris Collinsworth and Michele Tafoya detailed Hill’s arrest and aftermath in Kansas City’s Week 12 overtime win over Denver after he returned a kick 86 yards for a touchdown.

“It always gets into those fine lines of second chances versus maybe you don’t deserve a second chance sometimes,” Collinsworth said.

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There’s also a fine line for media regarding Hill. Should his domestic violence history be mentioned every time he touches the ball? Should Tirico or Al Michaels or Jim Nantz call an exhilarating punt return with the same gusto as they would for a 4.25 runner who has never beaten a pregnant woman? There’s a question of whether fans want to hear about it at all, preferring entertainment over moralizing.

Hill has avoided any legal trouble since his guilty plea. And he has paid a price, though it may not be sufficient. He’s on probation for another 20 months. He will forever be labeled a woman abuser. He must live with the guilt of his actions. He didn’t get an invitation to the NFL combine—the greatest sports job fair there is. Yes, he made $550,000 in salary this year, but he missed out on upwards of $500,000 in guaranteed money had he been a third-rounder. Still, his second chance is borne out of a universal truth that if you are among the best at what you do—in business, in sport or even in religion—you get more rope.

While Hill has avoided any and all trouble since that night, this pales in comparison to the emotional scar the victim bears. The wishes of Hill’s ex-girlfriend, who has since birthed her baby boy, must also be accounted for. One may think Hill should be in prison for his crime, but the person most greatly affected bravely faced him in court and worked with prosecutors to come up with a punishment she felt was adequate. She has declined or not responded to multiple media requests—including one from SI—but in a 2015 tweet to an Oklahoma State fan she wrote “I’m the person he attacked. If I can let go, so can you.”

Letting go, though, should not be confused with forgiving or forgetting what happened that night.