Tyreek Hill’s ‘second chance’ exposes the failures of an organization and a fanbase

DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 1: Wide receiver Tyreek Hill #10 of the Kansas City Chiefs runs after a catch against the Denver Broncos in the first quarter at Broncos Stadium at Mile High on October 1, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 1: Wide receiver Tyreek Hill #10 of the Kansas City Chiefs runs after a catch against the Denver Broncos in the first quarter at Broncos Stadium at Mile High on October 1, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images) /

Tyreek Hill’s inability to redeem himself in a meaningful, long-term way with the Kansas City Chiefs exposes both the organizational and its fan base.

By the night of December 8, 2016, Tyreek Hill’s disturbingly violent past had already been forgiven and nearly forgotten, swept under the rug by a Kansas City fan base enamored with his electric play.

Only eight months earlier, the Chiefs’ drafting of Hill was met with a mix of anger and frustrated confusion by the very same fans. The idea of adding a man who punched and choked Crystal Espinal, his then-girlfriend who was pregnant at the time, left fans feeling, at minimum, a little gross with many disgusted much more. Then Hill got on the field, and he was phenomenal.

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Return to that evening of December 8th on national television. The chant of “Tyreek, Tyreek, Tyreek” hung in the air at Arrowhead Stadium, serenading Hill as he stood alone waiting for Marquette King’s punt. Hill took that punt back for a touchdown. The crowd went ballistic. It was something out of a movie, and a superstar was born. It had been just under two years since the assault.

As Hill evolved from a special teams phenom and versatile gadget player into the NFL’s single most explosive receiver, his star only brightened. Along with it, his past faded into the background. It was almost as if it never happened. Like his criminal record, it had been expunged from the consciousness of football fans.

Now, his past has come back into full focus, as audio of a conversation between Hill and Espinal (now his fiancee) arguing about the way Hill disciplines their child has been released. A months-long investigation ended with the conclusion that a crime had likely been committed resulting in the injury of their child, but that it could not be determined who committed the crime. This new audio paints a dark picture of Hill—one where the roots of his issues with anger and violence haven’t been resolved, and perhaps have gotten worse.

What makes a “second chance”, precisely? Presently, it feels mostly like a cliché that’s used ad nauseam to condone the presence of athletes with ugly pasts on professional rosters. It remains undefined not only because each situation is unique, but because defining it would make it more difficult to justify.

In the case of Hill, it’d be safe to assume that one might define his “second chance” as contingent on him bettering himself as a man. A second chance allowed Hill to come to terms with the toxic and destructive aspects within his perceptions of masculinity and how they impact his relationships. Of course, at no point have we as a fan base heard anything from Hill that even closely resembles that sort of progress or self-awareness. In fact, during his career to this point in Kansas City, he’s never really had to directly address what he did to need a second chance in the first place, nor has he been open about what he’s done to make progress within himself.

We know he did what was required of him to have his domestic assault and strangulation guilty pleas expunged; otherwise we simply trusted the Chiefs saw enough personal progress to keep him around. We were content with vague generalities and loose promises.

It doesn’t even have to be that the Chiefs ignored warning signs. Who knows, maybe the organization didn’t see any reason to believe he hadn’t turned a corner. Either way, it’s obvious they failed miserably in the responsibility they took on in drafting him, and that responsibility should not be something fans expect the Chiefs or any team to uphold in the future.

This situation is just as much on us as a fan base as it is the Chiefs as an organization. We could have demanded more transparency regarding the details of Hill’s rehabilitation progress, but we didn’t. Some of us were too cynical, tapping into the almost sociopathic belief that it doesn’t matter what a player has done off the field as long as he’s playing at a high level on it. Others, like myself, allowed the intense high of watching a once-in-a-lifetime player to push those uncomfortable and unasked questions to the furthest corner of our minds.

What we ignore about athletes in the name of winning serves up a miserable commentary on our culture. This extends to organizations, teammates, and fans. We sweep so much under the rug for what objectively means so little. If sports is a healthy outlet for tribalism, the negative side of that coin is the willingness to care less about human suffering if it means a higher probability of victory.

The Chiefs like to paint themselves as the good guys of the NFL—as one of the few class acts. Look at the clean cut, white lights of organizational purity in a league muddled with cynical money grubbing and dysfunction. This was always a bit of a P.R. narrative, but recent history especially has highlighted how cynical of a lie it really is.

After dealing with the fallout of the Kareem Hunt video last year and knowing Tyreek Hill was under investigation regarding his child’s mysterious injury this year, the organization still saw fit to trade for and give a mega-deal to Frank Clark. This is an organization that is letting everyone know, very clearly, “All that matters to us is winning.” This is the same organization experienced the worst tragedy in their history with Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide only seven years ago. They either haven’t learned anything or they don’t care. Both options feel equally miserable.

This is why it becomes the responsibility of a fan base to keep the organization in check. “All publicity is good publicity” is a myth, and no NFL team wants angry fans—even if they’re still paying to watch the team play. Fans are so willing to voice their displeasure when their team is performing poorly on the field, but will excuse their silence in the face of ethically questionable decisions by saying their voice won’t matter. That’s a convenient lie we tell to allow ourselves to be apathetic bystanders in the face of what’s clearly wrong. It’s 2019, it’s not difficult to use the voice social media provides to let a team know how gross their behavior is. It’s just a little uncomfortable.

It is not unfair to hold players with dark pasts accountable for their actions. Fans hold players accountable for the mistakes they make on the field at an unfairly obsessive level. But any mistakes made off the field that actually impact other people in real, tangible ways are ignored as long as they keep performing to fans expectations on the field.

That we so rarely expect a second chance to include some level of an open, public display of progress seems to contradict the purpose of giving someone that chance in the first place. Being great at a sport doesn’t count as rehabilitation; yet, that has become our gauge. As long as an athlete is putting on a show, we assume he’s put his troubled past behind him and made strides to address his issues.

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

Perhaps it’s time to do a little self reflection and realize the level at which we actually care about a troubled athlete’s rehabilitation is only deep enough to convince ourselves we have no reason to feel bad about cheering for them.

We put our athletes in a constant cycle of giving the same answers to the same questions after every game. We rarely tread into any territory where we’d want these men to be real. Especially with those who’ve been given the mythical second chance, we walk on eggshells. We conflate any clichéd response about being focused on the team above themselves as evidence of personal growth. We never ask the difficult questions because we don’t like to be uncomfortable. We’re scared of what the answers might be.