It’s an awful but not unfamiliar story: Video is made public that shows a star NFL running back hitting a woman in a hotel. The footage seems to come as a shock to a league that had been slow to investigate the incident.
The sequence of events surrounding Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt in the past few days has in many ways echoed how the NFL disciplined – or failed to discipline – Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice in 2014.
After the NFL admitted to mishandling Rice’s case, they asked former FBI director Robert Mueller – now occupied with the Russia investigation – to look into what went wrong and how the league could adjust its discipline process for its players moving forward. Mueller issued a 65-page report in January 2015 outlining a number of suggested improvements.
Now, almost four years later, it’s worth looking back at that report’s recommendations to learn how the NFL has changed its treatment of players accused of violence towards women – and how it has come up short.
The NFL now does its own investigations – with varying results
What the Mueller report said: In Rice’s case, Mueller’s report “identified a number of investigative steps that the League did not take to acquire additional information about what occurred inside the elevator.”
The NFL did not reach out to the investigating police officers, the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office, or the hotel to attempt to gain surveillance video or other information on Rice, Mueller found.
Because of that, the report recommended that the NFL more actively investigate when players are accused of domestic violence or violence against women.
What the NFL has done since: Most prominently, they hired former sex crimes prosecutor Lisa Friel to head up investigations into these issues and set up an investigative body.
So far, these investigations have fallen short in several high-profile cases.
The NFL did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But in previous statements regarding Hunt’s case, the league said it began investigating immediately following an altercation with Hunt in February in which he shoved and kicked a woman in a Cleveland hotel. No arrests were made as a result of the incident and Hunt has not been charged with a crime, according to Cleveland Police.
The NFL did not make a formal request for police records or the surveillance video in Hunt’s case until Friday, November 30 – the same day TMZ published the surveillance video to their website, Cleveland Police Public Information Officer Sgt. Jennifer Ciaccia told CNN.
The league said it was unable to get access to the hotel video and was not able to speak with the complainants in the hotel fight. The NFL also did not interview Hunt, the player said in an interview with ESPN on Sunday. After TMZ released the video on Friday, Hunt was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list and then cut by the Chiefs.
The failure to get access to the video has revealed some flaws with the NFL’s efforts to conduct investigations.
Former NFL communications vice president Joe Lockhart pointed out that TMZ pays its sources, a practice frowned upon by mainstream media organizations, including CNN.
“People have talked about why does TMZ get this stuff and the NFL doesn’t? Well, TMZ pays for it. They go in and they find someone who works at the hotel, gives him five, ten, fifteen thousand dollars, and they get it,” Lockhart said. “The NFL as an organization, like CNN, The New York Times, or ESPN, doesn’t condone that kind of practice.”
In addition, the NFL is a private business and not a law enforcement body. Despite the presence of former prosecutors on its investigative team, the NFL does not have subpoena power to get evidence or interview witnesses.
The end result is that the NFL did attempt the investigatory moves that the Mueller report recommended. But when they were unable to see the hotel video or speak to witnesses, they had little or nothing to show for them.
The league doesn’t always follow its own policy on suspensions
What the Mueller report said: In 2014, Ray Rice was arrested and charged with assault for striking his then-fiancee and knocking her unconscious in a New Jersey hotel. He pleaded not guilty and agreed to a pretrial intervention program that would allow the charges to be dismissed.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice for two regular season football games as punishment. But when TMZ released the video of the assault, the NFL changed course and suspended Rice indefinitely. He has not played since.
Even before the video came out, though, Goodell admitted that the two-game suspension was too lenient and created a discipline standard: Any players who violated the league’s personal conduct policy regarding assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault with physical force would be suspended six games for a first offense.
The Mueller report praised that policy and said it “reflects the importance of imposing discipline on the basis of the underlying conduct and not based only on the disposition of the criminal case.”
What the NFL has done since: Despite its discipline policy, the NFL has not held fast to that six-game standard in several incidents of violence against women.
New York Giants kicker Josh Brown was suspended for just one game after his 2015 arrest in connection with an incident with his estranged wife. The NFL said its decision was based on its inability to speak with Brown’s wife or get timely information from the sheriff’s office.
However, authorities in Washington state released letters and journal entries in which Brown admitted to abusing his wife. After that, the NFL reversed itself and placed him on the commissioner’s exempt list, and he was cut by the Giants. He has not played in the NFL since.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston was suspended for just three games earlier this season as part of a negotiated settlement with the NFL. He had been accused of groping a female Uber driver in Scottsdale, Arizona in March 2016.
In addition, linebacker Reuben Foster was charged with felony domestic violence in April for allegedly attacking his girlfriend at their home, the Santa Clara County District Attorney said. The charges were dismissed after the victim recanted her story, although the DA’s office said the evidence showed he “seriously hurt” her.
The NFL did not suspend Foster for that domestic violence arrest. Instead, the NFL suspended him for two games this season in relation to a separate weapons offense and misdemeanor drug offense, the league said.
There are a number of other examples of players receiving suspensions under six games for similar arrests of violence against women. The end result is that the policy standardizing a six-game suspension has not functioned as a hard and fast rule.
Discipline seems influenced by video, public outcry
What the Mueller report said: The suspension policy was just one part of what was supposed to be a standardized process for dealing with such incidents of violence.
The report recommended that the NFL adopt written guidelines for its investigative team. The guidelines would cover what to do when there is no arrest, directions for obtaining relevant records and contacting relevant people and authorities, and expectations in terms of timing and thoroughness of the result.
What the NFL has done since: In practice, the NFL’s discipline decisions appear to have been based on public outcry – and in particular, visual evidence of wrongdoing.
The cases of Hunt and Rice are most similar in how TMZ’s release of video caused the NFL to take immediate action. The visual evidence resulted in a much harsher discipline.
Still, Lockhart, the former NFL communications official, said it’s important for the NFL to keep up a standard for playing in the league, even if teams may not follow that standard.
For example, the Washington Redskins signed Foster this week just days after he was arrested in another domestic violence case. Lockhart said that signing shows the need to maintain a standard for the entire NFL, not just individual teams.
“You’ve got 32 owners each with their own standards. There’s clearly some owners who will put winning in front of ethical behavior, and I think that’s the case with the Redskins,” he said. “But what the league tries to do, and I think they get it right most of the time, is say there is a standard for all 32.”