A Cloud of Uncertainty Hovers Over Tyreek Hill, Chiefs in Ongoing Investigation

Plenty of questions remain in the ongoing investigation against Tyreek Hill, and the answers will determine the Chiefs star's future in Kansas City.
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Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill remains under investigation by the Overland Park Police Department and the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office for an incident reported last Thursday in a home shared by the 25-year-old star and his fiancée, Crystal Espinal.

A police incident report from March 14, reveals very few details. The victim is a juvenile and the listed injury is ambiguously termed “apparent minor injury.” With respect to possible use of a weapon or tool, an item is indicated, but it is undisclosed and listed only as “other.”

The incident report omits a key finding by The Kansas City Star, KCTV5 and other media. They have learned that police are investigating the circumstances that led Hill and Espinal’s three-year-old son to recently suffer a broken arm. It is unclear if the injury stems from the March 14 incident or from a prior one.

While the police’s incident report mentions little about what may have happened, it does contain important details about the possible crime. Battery, as classified under Kansas Statute 21-5413, is the crime in question. Under Kansas law, battery is defined as knowingly or recklessly causing bodily harm to another person. Depending on, among other factors, whether the victim suffered a severe or disfiguring injury and whether the victim’s occupation falls within a protected category (e.g., police officer, school employee), battery can be classified as a misdemeanor or a felony. If a misdemeanor, battery is punishable by up to one year in jail; if a felony, battery is punishable by up to several years in prison depending on a range of factors. In the context of an injury that threatens the well-being of a child, battery can also lead to loss of child custody rights.

The March 14 incident report does not state or imply that Hill—or any other specific person—is responsible for his son’s injury. In fact, Hill’s name does not appear anywhere on the report. However, Espinal, who is 24 years old, is listed under “others involved.” As of this writing, no one has been charged with a crime.

The March 14 incident is not the first family-related occurrence in the home of Hill and Espinal to draw the attention of law enforcement. Police also investigated an incident on March 5 in which both Hill and Espinal are classified as “others involved.” According to the accompanying incident report, police investigated possible child abuse or neglect.

Under Kansas law, abuse of a child becomes a felony-level offense when the adult “cruelly beats” or “tortures” a child. Abuse of a child is also a felony when a parent or guardian engages in “inhumane corporal punishment” or shakes a child in such a violent way so as to cause him or her great bodily harm. Upon a determination that criminal charges were not warranted, law enforcement closed the child abuse investigation on March 8. The investigation can be reopened should evidence or testimony warrant.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families (Kansas DCF)—the state’s child welfare agency—is conducting its own investigation into activities occurring in Hill and Espinal’s home.

Hill and Espinal have been a couple for at least five years. In January, Hill publicly stated that Espinal was pregnant with twins.

Hill’s past legal issues

Hill, who is a three-time Pro Bowler, has a disturbing legal history. As detailed by SI’s Jonathan Jones, Hill pleaded guilty to domestic assault and battery in 2015. The plea reflected a gruesome incident that occurred in December 2014, while Hill was a star running back at Oklahoma State University. Espinal was Hill’s girlfriend at the time. She was also eight weeks pregnant. Hill attacked Espinal in a Stillwater apartment that they shared. Specifically, he hit her in both the face and stomach, and strangled her.

Through a plea deal, Hill avoided jail but received a three-year deferred sentence, probation and required completion of anger management coursework. The charges were technically dismissed and expunged last year upon Hill completing the requirements of his sentence. Hill’s football career at OSU ended with the school dismissing him. He then transferred to the University of West Alabama and from there the Chiefs drafted him in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Many, if not most, NFL teams had removed Hill entirely from their draft board on account of his misconduct.

Expect the Chiefs to wait until the police or child protection services take any action

As mentioned above, neither Hill nor anyone else has been charged with a crime stemming from incidents that allegedly occurred in his and Espinal’s home or while children were under the care of either Hill or Espinal.

The absence of charges does not mean that someone or multiple persons won’t be charged. In fact, under Kansas law, there is a five-year statute of limitations for battery and other crimes. Still, it would be speculative to assume that Hill will be charged, just as it would be speculative to assume that he’ll be cleared. The truthful answer is we don’t know what happened and we don’t know what will happen going forward.

Law enforcement need not rush to charge Hill or anyone else, particularly if they have encountered any conflicting evidence or other uncertainties about the case. Kansas DCF will act with haste, though, if children under Hill and Espinal’s care are in danger.

Both police and child protective services will try to determine where and when the injury occurred, who was around the three-year old boy at the time of his injury (or injuries) and whether Hill or Espinal sought medical services for their injured son—and if not, why didn’t they. The investigation will include witness interviews and requests, if not warrants, for physical evidence, including emails and texts. It’s also not clear, at least based on the wording of the incident reports, which person or persons called the police.

One thing is clear: the timing of the investigation could not have come at a worse time professionally for Hill, who is entering the final deal of his rookie contract. Two weeks ago, the NFL Network’s Ian Rapport reported that Hill and the Chiefs were negotiating a “record-setting deal.” There was speculation that the possible deal might have made Hill the NFL’s highest paid wide receiver. Today, Hill could face a potential release by the Chiefs and a very long suspension by the NFL.

The Chiefs, who have said they are gathering information about the alleged incidents, will probably refrain from taking punitive action against Hill unless and until: 1) he is charged with a crime by law enforcement or accused of misconduct by child protective services; 2) punished by the NFL; or 3) the team concludes that Hill has been untruthful.

There is recent precedent to consider. Last November the Chiefs released star running back Kareem Hunt after TMZ published a hotel surveillance video of Hunt having an altercation with a 19-year-old woman, who had allegedly called Hunt the n-word, in Cleveland’s Metropolitan hotel. Hunt was not criminally charged but the Chiefs released him. They did so after the NFL placed Hunt on the commissioner’s “exempt list,” where a player is barred from team activities but is still paid. The exempt list is analogous to administrative leave in that an employee who is suspected of wrongdoing, but who may turn out to be innocent, is placed on a paid suspension. The employee is thus kept away from the office but not in the form of an employer sanction.

The Chiefs reasoned that Hunt had “not been truthful” about the hotel incident in his conversations with team officials. Hunt, who signed with the Cleveland Browns last month, has been suspended by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for the first eight games of the upcoming 2019 season. The suspension reflected Hunt violating the league’s personal conduct policy with respect to the hotel incident and a separate “physical altercation” at his home.

The Chiefs know that if Hill is charged with battering a three-year old child to the point of breaking his arm, CEO Clark Hunt and GM Brett Veach will face enormous public and media pressure to release him. However, the team probably won’t take that step unless Hill is charged with a crime or child protective services seeks to remove the three-year-old boy from Hill and Espinal’s care. The team could reason that if law enforcement and child protective services—both of which are armed by the power of the government—are unable to conclude that Hill committed a crime or engaged in other wrongdoing, the team, as a private entity, is not in a position to claim more knowledge or better judgment.

Another player conduct controversy for the NFL where legal definitions could provoke debate

Like the Chiefs, the NFL will probably defer any action against Hill until there is more certainty as to whether he will be charged with a crime or face an adverse consequence from child protective services.

If Hill is charged, expect Goodell to place him on the exempt list rather than on the suspension list. To that point, there is a clear precedent. In 2014, Goodell placed Adrian Peterson on the exempt list after he was criminally charged with injuring a child (Peterson had slapped his four-year-old son with a tree branch or switch, causing him extensive injuries around the thighs and anus area). However, several months later, Peterson was transferred from the NFL’s exempt list to the league’s suspension list. This occurred after Peterson had reached a plea deal with prosecutors. The logic of the transfer is that while the exempt list is appropriate for players who are accused of serious wrongdoing and who may thus become distractions to their teams, the suspension list is appropriate for players who have actually been found at fault or have admitted to guilt.

If Hill is charged with a crime and later pleads guilty or is found guilty, the NFL would likely suspend him for at least six games or permanently banish him.

There would be competing factors for Goodell in deciding how to punish Hill.

On one hand, Hill would be a “first-time” offender of the NFL’s personal conduct policy. First-time offenders are normally treated less harshly than are repeat offenders. The underlying logic is that we tend to be more forgiving of a person who learns from a mistake than a person who makes the same mistake twice. While Hill is clearly not a first-time offender of the law—he pleaded guilty to crimes in 2015—he has not broken the NFL’s conduct policy since entering the league in 2016. From that lens, Hill would be a first-time offender of the NFL’s personal conduct policy.

In addition, the NFL’s stated protocol for acts that involve a first-time offense of “domestic violence, dating violence, child abuse and other forms of family violence,” calls for “a baseline suspension without pay of six games, with consideration given to any aggravating or mitigating factors.” Although this language expressly doesn’t preclude Goodell from imposing a suspension in excess of six games, it suggests that six games is generally the appropriate amount.

On the other hand, Goodell would face intense pressure to impose a much longer suspension than six games should Hill admit to breaking, or be found to have broken, the arm of his three-year old son.

First, while it’s true that Hill would be a first-time offender of the NFL’s personal conduct policy, it would also be true that the legal system would have found Hill a two-time offender of “family violence.” In that respect, he would be a repeat offender. Under the aforementioned NFL protocol, Hill would face “permanent banishment from the NFL” with an opportunity to petition for reinstatement after one year.

Second, Goodell can essentially do whatever he likes under the personal conduct policy. Some would urge him to use such discretion to punish Hill. Under Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement, Goodell can fine or suspend players “for conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football.” It is up to Goodell to determine how to interpret such language.

The NFL may face a similarly vexed scenario should Hill not be charged with a crime, but the league nonetheless concludes that Hill is guilty. This was Ezekiel Elliott’s situation in 2016. Elliott was not charged with domestic violence, but the NFL’s own investigation concluded that Elliott had violated the league’s personal conduct policy. Goodell suspended Elliott for six-games.

Elliott challenged the suspension in court. Many commentators believed that he had been wrongly accused. However, as expected, that legal effort failed. As multiple federal judges have ruled in litigations over application of the personal conduct policy (Peterson v. NFL; Brady v. NFL; Elliott v. NFL), the National Football League Players’ Association did not collectively bargain the kinds of procedural safeguards needed by players to successfully challenge Goodell’s application of the policy. Hill would face the same low odds if he challenged an NFL suspension in federal court.

The NFLPA would defend Hill even if doing so came at a public relations cost

If Hill is suspended by the NFL and seeks to challenge the suspension, his union—the NFLPA—would represent him and vigorously advocate on his behalf. The NFLPA would do so for several reasons.

First, the NFLPA has a duty under labor law to protect its members. Hill is a member.

Second, the NFLPA is mindful of precedent. The NFLPA knows that if Hill is punished by Goodell in an arguably unfair or excessive way, Goodell could do the same to another player. Attempting to stop Goodell, or at least putting up a fight and making Goodell defend himself, could make him less likely to engage in unfairness in future player controversies.

Third, the NFLPA knows that some members of the media and public are deeply skeptical of Goodell’s ability to handle player conduct controversies—and that some of those controversies, like Elliott and Deflategate, can lead to tensions between Goodell and certain owners. In other words, there is an instantly receptive audience to challenging Goodell and such challenges can create wedges between Goodell and his “bosses” (that is, the owners). In turn, such divisions could prove strategically valuable to the NFLPA, particularly with the current CBA set to expire after the 2020 season.

Fourth, Goodell can make procedural mistakes that nullify player punishments. This occurred in 2014 with Ray Rice, who was shown on a hotel surveillance video viciously dragging his fiancée (now wife), Janay Palmer, in a hotel. Rice’s suspension, however, was vacated by former U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones. This was because Goodell had punished Rice twice for the same misconduct and double-punishment is prohibited by the CBA.

Of course, the NFLPA knows that advocating for someone who is accused of badly hurting a child will attract criticism for insensitivity and tone-deafness. The NFLPA, though, is not in the business of winning popular support. It’s a union and is legally obligated to advocate for its members. It would take any criticisms as coming with the territory.

Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also Associate Dean of the University of New Hampshire School of Law and editor and co-author of The Oxford Handbook of American Sports Law and Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.