MIAMI — Asking questions of a football star on Super Bowl media night is always like trying to hold a police interrogation in the middle of a pop-up circus, so it was hard to blame Tyreek Hill if he sat down, looked out at the reporters and the clowns, and couldn’t tell the difference.
It was a strange session on Monday evening, if not for him than for us. Hill is an amazing football player and an engaging interview. He touted his teammates and spoke reverentially of Tom Brady. He was asked to talk trash to 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, and he pretended he would and then said how much he respected Sherman’s game. He did not seem like the man who beat up his pregnant girlfriend, Crystal Espinal, in 2014 and got kicked off the Oklahoma State football team; who got engaged to her, had kids with her and was the subject of a child-abuse investigation for two incidents last spring; and who was heard on a recorded audio telling Espinal, “You need to be terrified of me too, bitch.”
No, he did not seem like that guy at all. This is not the point, you say: How he seemed. But it is.
In 2014, Hill pleaded guilty to punching and choking Espinal. There is no “accused of” there. It happened. Then, last spring, Johnson County, Kansas district attorney Steve Howe said of the child abuse allegations: “We believe that a crime has occurred. However, the evidence in this case does not conclusively establish who committed this crime. It bothers us when we see something like this happen to a child . . . and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
There are, essentially, two hurdles a player must clear to play in the NFL. One is that a team must want to sign him. The other is that the league must allow him to play—no ban, no suspension, etc. Despite his various wrongdoings, Hill figured out how to achieve both.
The league chose not to suspend him last summer. Let’s be fair here: It sounds good for the league to say it has a higher standard than law enforcement, and players do not have to be convicted of a crime to be disciplined. But in practice, that’s hard to achieve. And the league, surely, has access to more information than the public. And yet: Based on previous NFL discipline, Hill’s past guilt, his recorded threats, and the police suspicion that a crime was committed, he should have been suspended. Otherwise, there is no higher standard.
The second step was that the Chiefs still had to want Hill, and boy, did they want him: In September, they signed him to a three-year, $54 million contract extension, with $35.2 million guaranteed.
Now Hill is going to the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, fellow receiver Antonio Brown can’t find a job and might never play in the NFL again. Brown was accused of sexual assault by a former trainer, but he was never charged with a crime.
The last thing we need to do here is start the world’s worst game show: “Whose Crime Was Worse?” That conversation inevitably leads to a diminishment of one charge and an insult to the victim or alleged victim, and whose crime was worse—if there even is such a distinction—is not the point. This is: The difference between Antonio Brown and Tyreek Hill is not the severity of accusations or the degree of provable guilt.
Brown is a pain in his employer’s butt, and Hill isn’t. You could see it in Hill’s media session here Monday or in his actions with the Chiefs. Yes, Hill pretended to urinate like a dog on the field last week. But he has not been a—gasp!—distraction, going on Facebook Live from a winning locker room and feuding with his quarterback and demanding a trade. He loves the Chiefs and the Chiefs love having him. They can work with him, and they can win with him.
Tyreek Hill is what every NFL team wants: manageable talent. You can call his number on the field and expect an explosive play, and you can sit him at a podium for Super Bowl Media Night and count on him to charm the charm-able.
Here is a sampling of answers; the questions don’t even matter:
“Always workin’ hard, the first one in, the last one out.”
“Be around people who are loving.”
He told a Mexican reporter how much he loved Mexico City. He said he was proud to inspire people from his hometown of Pearson, Ga. Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, working for a company called Panini America, introduced a “kid reporter” to Hill; some of us winced but Hill did not.
Hill is not here because he was innocent last spring or because he has reformed, though both may be true. He is here because the NFL, which has a history of haphazard and uneven discipline, gave him a pass, and because the Chiefs coach Andy Reid understood that he made their team better. Hill is not a problem for them. He thanked them again for showing they believed in him with that contract extension. He also said he is trying to become a “better man” every day. He was asked how he is doing that. He had no real answer.
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