The Ray Rice fiasco, which nearly brought sweeping and dramatic change to the league office, sparked the NFL to respond in a way that would avoid future P.R. debacles. And then, in the opinion of at least one influential owner, the NFL went too far the other way, creating problems when there officially otherwise were none.
Less than two years after Ray Rice, the NFL launched an aggressive investigation regarding allegations of domestic violence against Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. The league eventually imposed a six-game suspension on Elliott, even though he was never criminally charged or civilly sued. The procedures, which included a half-dozen private interviews of the alleged victim, included no opportunity for Elliott to confront or question the accuser, and featured at least one league investigator who believed that Elliott should not be suspended.
The situation greatly angered Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, and it fueled a persistent, creative, and stunning effort by Jones in 2017 to block the Commissioner’s contract extension, with the ultimate goal of securing a new Commissioner.
And so, in the immediate aftermath of the Commissioner getting his extension, it appears that the league may have softened its stern, unforgiving approach to off-field misconduct, an approach that ignored all efforts of law enforcement and drilled down on the facts and circumstances with the goal of reaching a conclusion as to whether the player did what he was accused of doing, under a much lower standard of proof than beyond a reasonable doubt. How else can anyone explain the fact that soon-to-be-former Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt: (1) was accused of shoving a woman in February 2018; (2) nothing seemed to happen over an extended period of time, even though the alleged victim clearly was motivated to receive some sort of justice or satisfaction; and (3) nearly 10 months later, a video of the incident suddenly emerges and Hunt is immediately suspended with pay by the league and then fired without pay by his team?
The league says it never saw the video before TMZ published it. Privately, the contention is that multiple attempts were made to obtain the video, that the hotel refused to provide the video to the NFL, and that the Cleveland Police Department likewise didn’t provide the video. (Others are reporting these contentions as facts. They aren’t facts; they are contentions that may or may not ultimately be supported by facts.)
Whatever the contentions or private explanations, here’s the reality: If the league learned anything from the Ray Rice case, it learned that it must do anything and everything to track down any and all available video of any alleged incident involving a player, because it always must be assumed that the video eventually will be obtained by TMZ. And if the league opted not to do that in Hunt’s case, the only explanation (other than gross incompetence) is that the NFL has decided to search for a middle ground between Rice and Elliott, one that entails swift and decisive action when required along with a commitment to focusing only on football unless and until the hand of the Shield is forced.
If that’s the compromise, it may not be the right one. Because it may not be enough to suddenly say, “Oh, there’s video? We tried to get the video but no one would give us the video. Well, now that there’s video, that changes everything.”
As a multi-billion-dollar operation that is far bigger and more powerful than TMZ, it’s fairly presumed that the league has the ability to get anything that TMZ is able to get. And if the NFL doesn’t have the current internal expertise to get videos that TMZ seems to always obtain, maybe the NFL needs to hire someone from TMZ to help the NFL figure out how to get those videos.
That’s the biggest flaw in the balance the NFL currently seems to be trying to strike. Given the power of video, the league should always be relentless when it comes to tracking down any and all video of any player incident, since it always should be assumed that the video will inevitably emerge.