Almost a year ago to the day, on Feb. 10, 2018, Kareem Hunt shoved a woman in a hotel hallway, shoved another individual so hard that he tumbled into the woman and knocked her down, and then kicked the woman as she crouched on the floor.
Early Monday afternoon, the Browns signed Hunt to a one-year, $1 million contract.
Congratulations, NFL: business as usual is back, and it’s booming.
There’s video of what Hunt did, from multiple angles. It’s a chaotic scene: a 216-pound athlete lashing out.
A CNN report cited three separate calls to police dispatch. It also noted that the hallway assault was one of three violent off-field acts of which he was accused in 2018: In January, a man told police in Kansas City, Missouri, that his nose and ribs were broken by Hunt and teammate George Atkinson during a nightclub brawl, and a witness said Hunt punched another individual during an altercation in June.
The Chiefs, who said they were aware of the February assault and had already spoken to Hunt even while he took the field for them every week at the start of the season, released Hunt when TMZ released the video in November.
But the NFL no longer has to worry about crimes and allegations from about 200 news cycles ago. Ratings are up. The 2018 season was a big hit. Even minor league football is suddenly popular.
We’re in a new golden age for the league, wherein the biggest controversy is a blown call in a playoff game. Concerns about violence against women are soooo 2014 in the NFL. Here’s a million dollars, Kareem Hunt: You learned your lesson, probably, and deserve a second chance, for some reason.
Oh, the NFL itself will discipline Hunt (on the commissioner’s exempt list as the league investigates the assault) with its usual swiftness and precision. Hunt’s shoving and kicking a woman is supposed to be punished with a minimum six-game suspension, which means by the time it is announced, it will probably be watered down to about three games, the same length as Jameis Winston’s suspension last season for groping an Uber driver in 2016.
Why would the league possibly cut its prescribed suspension in half in the face of such shocking evidence? It’s the NFL’s new math: Suspensions are adjusted based on the public’s attention span. Grope an Uber driver? Three games. Physically abuse your wife? One game. Soon, we’ll be so desensitized that the punishment for kicking a woman will be a benching for a quarter of a preseason game.
The NFL offers counseling as part of its conduct policy. Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that Hunt has already started anger management and alcohol counseling. Let’s hope he takes it seriously and it helps him. But it’s easy to be skeptical when a team is so quick to fork over money.
If Hunt had hurt his knee in November, teams would order a dozen MRIs before handing him a contract. But extreme behavioral modification? That can be knocked out in a few therapy sessions.
If this column comes across as a little jaded and cynical, you only needed to take a glance at Twitter in the moments after the Hunt signing was announced in order to see why. Here’s a sample from my feed, with the names scrubbed away and the thoughts paraphrased:
NFL Analyst 1: “Interesting. John Dorsey drafted Hunt for the Chiefs. The shrewd Browns general manager obviously still has faith in Hunt.”
NFL Analyst 2: “How odd: The Browns already have Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson Jr. It will be fascinating to see where Hunt fits in a crowded backfield.”
NFL Analyst 3: “Perchance the Browns hope to trade Hunt after his suspension now that they have procured his services at a discount rate. A bold player personnel tactic, indeed.”
Depth chart talk? Trade speculation? Pigskin analysis?
Hunt kicked a woman. It’s on video. It happened only one year ago, we learned about it mere months ago, and it’s already little more than a point of procedure.
The internet outrage eventually arrived, because internet outrage always eventually arrives. But it took the local instead of the express, and much of it sounded perfunctory and a little weary when it finally showed up.
Five years ago, footage of a football player violently assaulting a woman sparked around-the-clock coverage from hard-news outlets. Owners held press conferences to quell the outrage caused by the cover-up. We had a nationwide conversation about violence against women, its root causes and how the NFL can be part of the solution.
Now, many of us are reluctant to even make fun of the Browns for doing something stupid and awful because the Browns are a feel-good story. Heck, the whole darn NFL is a feel-good story. Bright new stars like Patrick Mahomes! Eternal champions like Tom Brady! Tense playoff duels! Young hotshot coaches! Ratings! Revenues!
Why talk about domestic violence, protesting racism or any of that boring old real-world stuff when we can watch some no-look passes?
This is NFL paradise. The league and its teams must only pay the barest lip service to having a social conscience while doing whatever they want to do. If Hunt can make the Browns 2 percent better or generate a few more dollars, who cares what happened last year?
Claiming that the NFL learned nothing from Ray Rice, Greg Hardy or other controversies that overshadowed the league in recent years would be 100 percent incorrect. The NFL learned exactly what it wanted to learn.
News cycles and angry internet mobs come and go. Fans come back, no matter what, as long as the games are exciting. Survivors’ names and stories begin to pale in comparison. And “the shield” endures, no matter what.
The NFL learned that the best way to solve all its problems is to score more touchdowns.
So now we must hold our noses and choke down Hunt’s imminent return to the NFL. He’ll attend Browns minicamps while the NFL twiddles with its investigation. By the time we hear about his suspension—which will inevitably be appealed—we’ll have been force-fed a redemption narrative.
And by the time Hunt scores his first touchdown, television analysts and columnists like me will shorthand what he did as a vague “incident” or “mistake” so we don’t keep tripping over the phrase “repeatedly shoved and kicked a woman” every time we mention him.
Of course, many will forget about the victim. In fact, many already have.
We can blame the NFL and its teams for being callous, insincere, insensitive, tone-deaf and utterly indifferent to everything but dollars, win totals and ratings points. But we must also remember that many of us trained the NFL to be that way.
As fans and observers, we’re easily distracted. We forget more easily than we forgive. We crave football so much that it’s unhealthy.
We swallowed CTE, Rice, Hardy, the Colin Kaepernick blackballing. What’s a guy kicking a woman compared to all that? Get mad on the internet today, talk about Kyler Murray tomorrow, draft Hunt in your fantasy league as soon as his suspension lifts.
Business as usual is all of our business. We should hold the NFL and its teams more accountable. We should hold ourselves more accountable.
Until then, the league will always offer second or third chances to the likes of Kareem Hunt and worry about whether they deserve them later.