The teeth-grinding thing about the NFL is that it never really changes.
You always think that maybe the league or the teams or the coaches or the players have learned. Maybe this time, we’ll get lucky or just smart. Maybe this time, an abusive player will stay kicked out of the league for good. Maybe this time, a team won’t come to the defense of a man who beats women. Maybe this time, the NFL will find a way to keep its violence between the hash marks.
But the thing about the NFL is that it is relentlessly, mind-numbingly stubborn. Beyond all hope, reason and logic, the members of the NFL refuse to learn basic lessons. They will repeat their mistakes again and again, until it becomes impossible to call them “mistakes.” And instead, it becomes clear that the members of the National Football League truly don’t care about anything except winning football games.
If you can’t tell, I’m mad. Furious, really. I’m mad because this week, the Cleveland Browns signed running back Kareem Hunt, a superstar in the backfield who used to play for my beloved Chiefs, until a video leaked of him kicking and slurring at a woman outside of a hotel room in the offseason. The Chiefs — who had previously failed to investigate the incident, instead believing Hunt’s claim that nothing had happened — promptly cut our star running back, leaving the rest of the season on the shoulders of our kid genius quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
At the time, the Chiefs received lukewarm praise for finally doing the right thing, after doing the wrong thing when they thought they wouldn’t get caught. Now, Hunt is back in the league after spending just a few months out of work and even less time in therapy. He’ll probably break records next season and help Baker Mayfield to complete his transformation of Cleveland football. And so the cycle continues.
I’m mad about this situation for a lot of reasons, but mainly because I am someone who believes in second chances. While I do think that certain crimes such as domestic violence or sexual assault deserve an immediate one-way ticket home from the league (Hey Tyreek Hill, you still suck), I don’t believe in a zero tolerance policy for all crimes. I believe that there is a gray area of forgiveness for most people. Without it, we wouldn’t see players like Eagles center Jason Kelce fight to overcome anger management issues.
The thing that really gets me about Hunt’s firing and hiring is that it wasn’t used as an opportunity to promote change or constructive growth in either Hunt or the league. If he had been investigated properly in February, the Chiefs would have found the tape of the incident before TMZ did. The team could have suspended him, gotten him into anger management programs, mandated that he work with programs for violence against women. Rather than hiding and then lashing out when it was caught for its cowardice, the organization could have stood up and helped a young man grow.
I’m not making excuses for any violent athlete. Violence is never acceptable and should always be punished firmly, in any and every area of society. But the NFL fields a large group of young men from rough backgrounds, men who were not taught to channel their emotions through anything but aggression and violence on the field. It’s not surprising that football has a violence problem — what is surprising is that the league continues to fail to take any steps toward actually fixing it.
Hunt made an effort to start therapy this year, mainly in hopes of earning redemption in the eyes of fans and owners. But he’s only been attending sessions for a handful of weeks and the likelihood of him staying in therapy now that his contract with the Browns is inked is low. That’s a loss, first and foremost, for Hunt. He made a grave error, and although he paid a price, he wasn’t necessarily given the tools to grow from it.
Football teams spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours training their athletes to be stronger, faster and smarter on the field. It’s time that these teams also put the same level of dedication into teaching their athletes how to think and feel outside the lines.
From the guaranteed mental and emotional effects of CTE to the common issue of anger management in young football players, the league is wracked by mental health issues, yet it simply plays blind to any issue that doesn’t involve football. As a league, however, shuttling players from one team to another in an attempt to react to scandal simply can’t be the answer anymore.
It’s always the right time for the NFL to acknowledge this problem. The question is when — or, more likely, if — it will ever actually wake up.
Julia Poe is a senior writing about her personal connection to sports. Her column, “Poe’s Perspective,” runs weekly on Thursdays.