Just before 2 p.m. on Monday, the Browns announced a transaction: They had signed running back Kareem Hunt. The roster move was accompanied by relatively lengthy statements by Hunt and general manager John Dorsey, referencing (in non-specific terms), “my actions last year,” and, “his egregious actions.”
Those actions included Hunt’s shoving and kicking a woman outside his residence in Cleveland following a night out last February. He also was accused of punching a man at a resort in Ohio last June, and of being part of a group that punched a man at a nightclub in Kansas City last January. No charges were filed in any of these incidents.
When video of the February incident became public late last November, published by TMZ, the Chiefs released Hunt. The team said it previously knew about this incident, but the video demonstrated that Hunt had not been truthful when team officials talked with him about what happened. Two-and-a-half months later, Hunt is employed by another NFL team.
In his statement, Dorsey said, “We believe he deserves a second chance but certainly with the understanding that he has to go through critical and essential steps to become a performing member of this organization.” Hunt’s words: “I have to earn my way back to the NFL.” The decision to sign him so quickly, however, indicates otherwise.
Dorsey said at a press conference Monday evening this signing was “by no means… a guarantee of anything.” He mentioned that Hunt still has to earn his way onto the 53-man roster, following the “clearly laid out” plan referenced in Dorsey’s statement, which includes Hunt’s ongoing professional treatment. But Hunt’s being signed to an NFL contract is a guarantee of something, an NFL opportunity—one he was given without the team giving specific evidence of what he has done to earn this in the span of only 10 weeks.
When Hunt was released by the Chiefs, the organization said he had lied to them. Just a few days later, Hunt sat for an interview with ESPN’s Lisa Salters, in which he initially answered her question about whether or not he had sought any counseling since the February incident affirmatively—then clarified that he had not yet started counseling and would “keep talking to my people” about setting that up. From this, we learned that he was untruthful about his actions and did not seek help to correct his violent behaviors until after the video was released and he lost his job in the NFL. These (again, very recent) revelations only add to the skepticism about the Browns’ move to sign him.
While the February incident was not a case of intimate-partner violence (Hunt and the woman had never met before that night), experts in domestic violence and violence against women do not advocate for zero tolerance policies. They can interfere with victims getting help, or serve to make dangerous situations worse. Perpetrators of violence earning a path back to employment is part of rehabilitation.
But, there is also a wide spectrum between zero tolerance and signing a player who has committed a violent act a mere 10 weeks after his last employer released him for being untruthful—and while he is still on the NFL’s commissioner’s exempt list, meaning that the NFL’s investigation into what took place during these incidents is still ongoing. There is also a difference between earning a path back to employment, and earning a path back to the NFL stage. But, this is where the challenge will always be in asking sports leagues to become moral arbiters, determining how long an absence is acceptable for a player who has committed a violent act.
The Browns made a football decision in signing Hunt. They bought low on a talented young player whom Dorsey, when he was the GM in Kansas City, drafted in the third round. They are reportedly signing him to a one-year contract that will allow the Browns to control his rights as an exclusive free agent after this upcoming season. According to Dorsey, the NFL told the Browns that the league’s investigation would be wrapping up in “a few weeks,” and while he did not specify his reasons, they did not wait to see what those findings were before signing him. Hunt will be returning to his home state, where two of the three incidents occurred.
When Dorsey was asked at the press conference where the team stands on violence against women, he deferred to ownership and said, “I’m not going to be the spokesperson for the organization with regards to that.” The signing, of course, makes a statement on its own. While Dorsey’s decision to meet with the local media may have been well-intentioned, his comments were—as is too often the case—lacking in the depth and specificity for which the situation called. Perhaps that’s partly because, in this short time frame, Dorsey could not possibly have enough evidence of how Hunt has learned from his actions and worked to change his behavior, certainly not to the extent to which the general manager could have conviction that this young player will not be violent again. If Dorsey believed that Hunt’s being a part of the Browns could provide him structure and incentive to stay on track, he did not take the opportunity to detail that in his press conference.
The best outcome is that Hunt stays committed to the “necessary professional treatment” that the Browns say he has been receiving and does not re-offend. That a 23-year-old has learned from—and will not be defined by—the incidents of violence he committed. That he becomes the “better person” Dorsey said several times that he believes Hunt can become. But couldn’t an NFL team wait for that to happen, rather than signing him first and hoping that it does?
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