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The uncomfortable reality of Tyreek Hill's success

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The uncomfortable reality of Tyreek Hill's success (2:23)

Mina Kimes covers the background of Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill's on-field success and history of domestic violence. (2:23)

ONE OF THE most jaw-dropping plays I witnessed this season happened in late November, during a Sunday night game between Kansas City and Denver. Halfway through the second quarter, the Chiefs, whose lurching offense had yet to score, sent rookie wide receiver Tyreek Hill out to return a kick. As the ball soared past the 15-yard line, Hill backpedaled, caught it and sliced across the field -- then turned the corner and accelerated, leaving a throng of defenders gasping in his wake.

After Cris Collinsworth and Mike Tirico marveled at the blink-and-you'll-miss-it touchdown, sideline reporter Michele Tafoya appeared on screen. "Well, Mike, Tyreek was a controversial pick for the Chiefs because in 2015 he pleaded guilty to domestic abuse of his pregnant girlfriend while at Oklahoma State," she said. The camera cut to Hill, who was breathing heavily on the bench, smiling in the way that rookies sometimes do -- overjoyed, surprised and more than a little relieved.

When Tafoya was finished, Tirico explained that when Chiefs general manager John Dorsey chose Hill, he had to have anticipated a backlash in Kansas City, where linebacker Jovan Belcher had murdered the mother of his child, Kasandra Perkins, in 2012 before committing suicide. Collinsworth pointed out that Hill's selection might have caused some distress for Perkins' family. "As an organization, they obviously put him through every program you can imagine, and it's still ongoing," Collinsworth said. "But it obviously gets into those fine lines of second chances versus maybe you don't deserve a second chance sometimes. But they took a chance."

As Collinsworth spoke, he sounded calm and prepared, but the juxtaposition of images and words was undeniably jarring -- a breathtaking display of the human body's potential followed by a reminder of its terrifying capacity for misuse. When Hill appeared on screen again, it occurred to me that millions of people were asking themselves whether the Chiefs had made a grievous error. They would continue to do so as he bloomed into a bona fide star, sparking the Chiefs to the second seed in the playoffs.

No one understands that tension better than Ray Rice. "Once you're associated with it, you're never getting rid of it," he told me a few weeks later. "You've got to go out there and understand that." Hill's past, in other words, will follow him as long as the people with a vested interest in football continue to bring it up -- but it isn't clear that they will, or that they'll do it with care.

KANSAS CITY PICKED Hill in the fifth round of the draft, at a point when most people are no longer paying attention. And yet, the move stirred up enough debate to cause his name to trend on Twitter, which sent me down an internet rabbit hole. I learned that Hill grew up in a tiny town in Georgia, where he was raised by his grandmother, and that he ran the 200 meters in 20.14 seconds as a high school senior, which would've been the sixth-fastest time at the London Olympics. I learned that, after a couple of seasons at a community college, he enrolled at Oklahoma State, where he was named Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the Year.

I learned why he was trending on Twitter. On Dec. 11, 2014, five days after Hill had led OSU to a comeback victory over Oklahoma, he was arrested and charged with the felony of domestic abuse by strangulation.

Like many writers who cover the NFL, I've grown somewhat inured to poring over the details of intimate partner violence. But Hill's case was startling. According to a Stillwater Police Department arrest report, his girlfriend at the time, Crystal Espinal, showed up in an emergency room with cuts and bruises on her face and neck. (The officer who filed the report noted that her lip was busted, that she was wincing with pain and that the mark under her eye was turning purple as she spoke.) Espinal, who was eight weeks pregnant at the time, said Hill had grabbed her neck with his hands, pinned her against the wall and then thrown her to the ground like a "rag doll." She told an officer that Hill had picked her up by her hair and put her in a headlock. After Espinal had screamed "I can't breathe" several times, she alleged, he released her, then sat on top of her, punching her in the stomach.

During her interviews, Espinal told the police that Hill had a "volatile temper" and had been physical with her before, but had never hit her -- "just a lot of manhandling," she said. Afterward, an officer went to Hill's apartment, where he found Espinal's ripped shirt. He also found a photo of a sonogram attached to the mirror.

That weekend, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy -- who had visited the police department and asked to look at photos of the victim, according to the arrest report -- kicked Hill off the team. "We try to stress as much as we can to these guys, there's just certain things right now that society frowns upon," he told reporters.

Months went by. In January, Hill pleaded not guilty; in March, Espinal -- who was still pregnant, according to reports from the courtroom -- testified against him. A local news site, ocolly.com, reported that Hill had actually called 911 in November, claiming his girlfriend refused to leave his home (he did not mention any physical violence). In August, Hill, whose original lawyer had dropped his case, citing his inability to pay, pleaded guilty to domestic abuse. He signed a statement admitting he had put Espinal in a headlock during a physical fight and received a deferred prison sentence of three years. He agreed to sign up for an anger management course and a batterers program, and promised that he'd enroll in school or work a full-time job.

In court, Hill told the judge that he regretted his actions. "I did something I shouldn't have done," he said. "I let my feelings take control of me."

HILL'S SELECTION IN the draft was met with a swift, focused backlash. Angry columns were written and solemn news conferences were held; one Kansas City radio host set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for a shelter for victims of domestic abuse. That weekend, a reporter asked Hill how he'd avoid repeating his past mistakes. "I just try to choose my friends wisely, you know what I'm saying?" he answered.

The response sounded ill-considered and glib, and a few days later, Hill walked it back. "I don't blame nobody but myself," he said. He told the media he understood why some in Kansas City were distraught by his arrival. "Those guys, those fans, they have every right to be mad at me because I did something wrong and I just let my emotions get the best of me and I shouldn't have done it. They have every right to be mad."

"But guess what," he continued. "I'm going to come back and be a better man, be a better citizen, and everything will just take care of itself, and let God do the rest."

The week after the draft, I was asked by Outside the Lines to join a panel discussing the controversy over Hill. As I prepared for the segment, I experienced a faint sense of déjà vu; a year earlier, I had appeared on the same show to discuss the Seattle Seahawks' second-round pick, Frank Clark, who had also been arrested and charged with assault after allegedly hitting his girlfriend (he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge). When I reread Clark's vague comments in the wake of the 2015 draft, it occurred to me that Hill's apology was unusually direct -- a sign of the changing times, I thought, or improved media training. Or maybe he really meant it.

Before I went on the show, I tried to dissect my feelings of indignation. Although I was disappointed in the Chiefs for picking someone who had done what Hill had done -- choked, rag doll, manhandling, pregnant -- I struggled with the idea that a man who had accepted responsibility for his crime should be barred from seeking gainful employment and earning an income that would allow him to provide for his victim. Hill was a second-round talent who had dropped to the fifth round, forgoing millions in earnings. The Chiefs were being financially rewarded for their lenience. Instead of slamming the pick, I criticized the team, singling out Dorsey's wan exhortations to "have a little bit of trust in us."

NFL teams are businesses that thrive when they maximize the output of their employees. When they claim to be motivated by other priorities, we have no reason to blindly trust them -- just as we have no reason to trust abusers when they publicly express regret. But we can evaluate their actions. After Hill was dismissed from OSU, he landed at the University of West Alabama, where he continued to undergo court-ordered counseling and occasionally video-chatted with his victim about their child under supervision. His coach, Brett Gilliland, told me he also met with the college's Title IX coordinator once a week. "He put all of his energy into focusing on getting better," he said.

In recent weeks, the Chiefs have been more forthcoming about Hill's rehabilitation process. Dorsey has revealed that the front office interviewed his coaches and family members as well as the prosecutor who handled his case. Coach Andy Reid has publicly praised him for his work off the field. Hill recently disclosed that he's still undergoing therapy and is providing financially for his victim and their child. (The Chiefs declined to make him available for an interview.)

In a perverse way, the timing of his crime worked to his benefit. If he had been arrested right before the draft, he probably wouldn't have caught on with a team; if it had happened after he signed, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would've suspended him. In 2014, several months after the publication of the now-infamous video of Rice assaulting his then-fiancée, the league changed its domestic violence policy so that first-time offenders would serve a six-game suspension without pay. A second strike would trigger a lifetime ban.

When the NFL rolled out its harsher guidelines, many league observers were impressed. I was impressed. But I've since changed my mind. I now think the NFL underestimated how difficult it would be to adjudicate cases without formal charges, and I've come to believe that a rigid punishment policy is dangerous for victims. After the Giants bungled their investigation of Josh Brown, a former kicker who was arrested and charged with domestic assault, Deadspin's Diana Moskovitz wrote about how Brown's ex-wife, Molly, was fearful of involving the police because she didn't want her husband to lose his job. "What feels good and what is right, especially in cases of domestic violence, are very different things," Moskovitz explained. "Zero-tolerance and similar get-tough penalties haven't worked when used in the criminal justice system. Expecting them to work in sports would be, at best, naive."

"Often, the result is that victims won't call or ask for help."

Kim Gandy, president of National Network to End Domestic Violence, on the unintended consequences of stiff penalties

And yet, while I don't object to Tyreek Hill finding work in the NFL, I believe that Oklahoma State was right to release him when it did. I believe that Oklahoma should've cut Joe Mixon from its team after he punched a female student and that Greg Hardy has no place in football. I hold these beliefs even though I agree with Moskovitz's critical assessment of zero tolerance, and I haven't figured out how to reconcile them.

When I presented this quandary to Kim Gandy, the president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, she sighed. "If any of us knew the answer to that, we'd have a Nobel Peace Prize," she said. Gandy, like many experts in the field, believes that instead of touting its stringent policies, the NFL should make it known that it's prioritizing the needs of survivors. She doesn't think the league should eliminate penalties altogether, but she worries about their unintended consequences. "Often, the result is that victims won't call or ask for help," she says.

The well-being of survivors matters more than the sanitization of the NFL's brand -- or the delusion that if we no longer have to look at abusers, we can enjoy our societally sanctioned violence while pretending they don't exist. But it's undeniable that their presence on television causes many people pain. When these men play and play well, their success creates a dilemma that continues to beguile everyone with a vested interest in football. How do we talk about them?

ON DEC. 26, a few days after Hill made his first Pro Bowl as a return specialist, ProFootballTalk cited a source claiming that most NFL teams had taken him off their draft boards because of his record. That could be true, but Gilliland told me that representatives from all 32 teams visited his campus during Hill's year at West Alabama. Twenty of them showed up at his pro day, where they watched him run the 40-yard dash in 4.24 seconds.

Although NFL evaluators like to sprinkle their scouting reports with fleeting references to character issues, it's undeniable that such concerns are inversely correlated with talent. It's why a star like Hardy found his way into the Cowboys' locker room after his sins were exposed but a third-stringer who makes a misstep will get tossed before most fans learn his name. In the NFL, talent is currency; it buys tolerance and, in some cases, immunity. And Hill? He has a special talent. Whenever he touches the ball, the field crackles with electricity; he doesn't turn corners so much as he bounces around them, bending like a ray of light. He scored 12 touchdowns this season, tying the Chiefs' rookie record, and made the AP All-Pro team as a unanimous choice.

All of which is to say: He's not going anywhere.

"With Tyreek's situation, he needs to understand there are going to be questions. There need to be men who are open about it."

Ray Rice

Over the past two months, I've listened to my colleagues and peers struggle to talk about Hill. It feels wrong to praise him for his gifts while ignoring his flaws, but it also feels strange to intermingle talk of jet sweeps and screens with casual references to domestic violence. I co-host a fantasy football show, and I can't imagine working the subject into our usual conversation.

"Tyreek Hill is now averaging double-digit points on a weekly basis, making him a great flex option. And by the way: Two years ago, he pleaded guilty to domestic abuse by strangulation."

That doesn't seem right, or fair. But it would be equally unfair to wipe Hill's misdeeds from his record -- to pretend he can outrun his demons as swiftly as he shoots across our television screens. Hill's past is a permanent part of his story, and it should be mentioned every time his life and character are discussed. His efforts to redeem himself are also part of that story. Someday, they could become the most important part.

Over the past few years, Ray Rice has become something of an advocate in the space, speaking with the Ravens and several college football teams about domestic violence. When I asked him what he thought about Hill's story, he told me he hoped that the receiver was putting in work off the field to better himself -- and that someday he'd address those efforts in public. "With Tyreek's situation, he needs to understand there are going to be questions," he said. "There need to be men who are open about it."

Rice sees Hill's case as an opportunity to shine more light on the issue. "Why not embrace the conversation and understand what happened here?"

It's a lofty challenge, and one that I suspect we -- Hill's teammates, his coaches, the media, fans -- will struggle to meet on most occasions. As his star rises, we'll try to wedge his rehabilitation into a narrative about his success on the field, as though yards after catch are a metric of personal growth. We'll minimize his crime by calling it "an incident," then "off-the-field trouble," then, as we do with stars such as Ben Roethlisberger, nothing at all. We'll say, as ESPN's own Brent Musberger did about Mixon during the Sugar Bowl, that we're rooting for him (without mentioning his victim). We'll get it wrong so many times.

But every now and then, we'll get it right, and when we do, it'll matter. Thousands of stories like Tyreek Hill's unfold every day, and they're never discussed on a national stage. But on a Sunday night in November, that's exactly what happened. For 30 seconds, Cris Collinsworth talked about domestic violence and made millions of people uncomfortable. And when the game resumed, that feeling remained.