On Sunday afternoon, when the Pittsburgh Steelers take on the Kansas City Chiefs in the second round of the NFL playoffs, all eyes will be on Chiefs rookie Tyreek Hill. His play on the field certainly warrants that attention. The 5’10” wide receiver has 12 touchdowns this season — six as a wide receiver, three as a running back, and three as a return man. This week, the Wall Street Journal argued there hasn’t been a player like Hill in the NFL in the past 40 years, and the Bleacher Report declared him “The Game Changer Who Could Hijack the 2017 Playoffs.”
But there’s another reason why Hill’s name might sound familiar to many casual NFL fans. In December 2014, when he was a football star with the Oklahoma State Cowboys, Hill punched and choked his pregnant girlfriend.
The details of the assault — the cuts and bruises on the victim’s face and neck when she showed up in the emergency room; her description of being thrown to the floor like a “rag doll;” the punch he landed on her two-month pregnant stomach; the sonogram the officer found attached to the mirror when he examined the scene; the fact she said this wasn’t the first time — are sickening, haunting, and pretty much impossible to reckon with.
“It always gets into those fine lines of second chances versus maybe you don’t deserve a second chance sometimes,” NBC announcer Chris Collinsworth said during a Chiefs game on Sunday Night Football this season, after Hill made a remarkable play and sideline reporter Michelle Tafoya directly addressed the receiver’s past.
Collinsworth’s uneasiness about the presence of Hill on the football field was surely echoed in the hearts and minds of millions of Americans who were being entertained by Hill that evening. Is a second chance even warranted after what Hill did? And, if so, had he really earned one?
Unlike so many other domestic abusers, Hill has been through the justice system. The night of the assault he was arrested and charged, and Oklahoma State immediately released him upon finding out about the police report. Eight months later, in August 2015, he pled guilty to domestic assault and battery by strangulation and, because he was a first-time offender, was sentenced to three years of probation. From there, Hill began court-mandated counseling, returned to school and football for a season with the University of West Alabama Tigers, and then this spring — despite the concerns about his past — was drafted in the fifth round by the Chiefs.
That decision sparked plenty of controversy, and Hill didn’t necessarily help things when, in his first interview after the draft, his response to a question about what he learned from the assault was, “I just try to choose my friends wisely, you know what I’m saying?”
However, by all accounts, Hill has stayed out of trouble since the assault. He has continued to go to counseling, both in Alabama and in Kansas City. According to the Kansas City Star, during his time at Alabama, he regularly video chatted with his victim since they share a child, but other people were always present during these chats to provide support if needed. (The victim was also reportedly consulted by the judge during the judiciary process and felt comfortable with his sentence. Hill is providing child support.)
The Chiefs organization — which four years ago experienced one of the worst domestic violence incidents in NFL history, when linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend and then drove to the Chiefs parking lot and committed suicide in front of his head coach and general manager — has been adamant since the draft that it takes domestic violence seriously and did its due diligence with Hill. Head Coach Andy Reid, who has always been a sucker for second chances, stressed that Hill’s commitment to becoming a better person made him feel comfortable with the selection.
“Counseling was a big part of it — is he willing to go and do that,” Reid said, as reported by the Kansas City Star. “That step is huge. To actually admit you were wrong… a lot of people won’t do that, they just won’t go there. On top of that, to try to fix yourself, and make it right, to her, those are valuable, valuable steps.”
And, while Hill has never talked in depth about the domestic abuse or addressed whether he was a repeat offender, he did quickly apologize for saying that his choice of friends had anything to do with the incident, and took responsibility for his actions.
“The fans have every right to be mad at me. I did something wrong. I let my emotions get the best of me, and I shouldn’t have did it,” he said. “They have every right to be mad. But guess what? I’m fixing to come back, be a better man, be a better citizen, and everything takes care of itself, and let God do the rest.”
You could make the argument — as one unnamed general manager told Sports Illustrated — that there’s no way Hill would be in the NFL right now if there were a video of what he did like there was in Ray Rice’s case, or even if photos of the abuse leaked out like they did with Greg Hardy. We’ve seen time and time again how much greater the public outcry is when there’s visual evidence of the attack, as plenty of people already don’t think he should be playing in the league: the NFL was harshly criticized by fans on Twitter in November when it featured a photo of Hill and awarded him with a player of the week honor.
That criticism is more than understandable considering the horrendous things that Hill has explicitly admitted to doing. As part of his guilty plea, Hill signed a statement that read: “I was in a fight with my girlfriend that turned physical between us and I wrongfully put (her) in a headlock, putting external pressure on her neck that compressed her airway causing bodily injury.”
But, in that case, does the fact that Hill has publicly taken responsibility for his crime, has been punished through the judiciary system, and has reportedly received regular counseling and stayed out of trouble since the incident not count for anything? Sure, a cynic could say he’s just going through the motions — but aren’t the motions there for a reason?
A quick survey of the internet confirms our universal obsession with the concept of second chances. Television shows and self-help books and nonprofits are all named in its honor; there are an endless number of quotes on Pinterest waxing poetically about the topic, and according to what is surely a very scientific poll on Debate.org, 82 percent of people believe that people should get second chances. That’s probably because we all have been the beneficiary of a second chance after making a mistake at some point in our lives, in various scales and frequency.
Still, as Collinsworth pondered, where is the line drawn? At what point are all of the privileges revoked?
There’s no simple answer here. Hill did something unconscionable, and now he is an NFL rookie standout poised to have a breakout game on one of the biggest stages in all of sports. And because he’s only 22, it’s unlikely this will be his curtain call. We’re probably going to have to reckon with Hill — what he did in the past, and whether he deserves to be doing what he’s doing in the present — for years to come.
“The fans have every right to be mad at me. I did something wrong.”
Perhaps that’s not as bleak as it seems. As Mina Kimes wrote for ESPN, we have far too often shoved acts of violence against women committed by athletes into the background, so maybe it’s good for us to sit with the dual realities of Hill’s crime and Hill’s talent and absorb the discomfort of it all. Maybe, as Ray Rice proposed to Kimes, Hill will become more comfortable talking about domestic violence as he gets older, and can use his past to help others, as Rice is now doing. Perhaps some good can come from this, something that is much more significant than a boost to Kansas City’s Super Bowl hopes.
But no matter where Hill’s story goes from here on or off the field, we must remember that believing in second chances doesn’t mean discounting the importance of accountability, just as forgiving doesn’t equate forgetting. As tempting as it is to turn every athlete’s moment of success into a redemption tale, we must keep everything in context.
A punt return for a touchdown could redeem Hill from his fumble the prior series, not from punching and choking his pregnant girlfriend. Nothing he ever accomplishes on the field can absolve him of that.