Opinion: Protecting the Shield

By Spencer Bowen

How can an organization accept an assaulter while repeatedly rejecting a person exercising nonviolent protest?

Lost among the color and pageantry of Super Bowl Sunday was a report that multiple teams may sign Kareem Hunt, a running back released by Kansas City’s professional football team on November 30 after TMZ released a disturbing video of Hunt pushing and kicking a woman in a Cleveland hotel. Hunt is currently on Commissioner Roger Goodell’s exempt list, which is essentially the NFL’s version of paid leave, as the league investigates the incident as well as two other physical altercations involving Hunt.

Multiple teams’ reported interest in signing an abuser exposes the NFL’s much-ballyhooed domestic violence and personal conduct policy as a joke. Moreover, it shows how hubris can warp an organization’s priorities to a point where 31 white men and Shad Khan (the NFL’s vibrantly diverse group of team owners) refuse to employ Colin Kaepernick but will sign Kareem Hunt.

After America’s most overpaid man absolutely bungled the NFL’s response to Ray Rice’s brutal abuse of his then-fiancée and now-wife, the league assured America that it would huddle with owners, players, and experts to do better. In December 2014, the NFL proudly beat its chest and unveiled a new personal conduct policy hailed as “strengthened,” “robust,” and “thorough.” The new policy centered on a more extensive and specific list of prohibited conduct and supposedly stronger discipline guidelines, including a baseline suspension of six games for assault regardless of criminal charges. Despite opening the new document with, “It is a privilege to be a part of the National Football League,” a sentence suggesting an appeal to our better angels and holding superstar role models to high standards, the NFL’s own policy immediately gives away the gambit. The very first justification of the new rules does not reference humanity, morality, or the harm done to survivors of violence. Instead, it mentions the “integrity of and public confidence in” the NFL. Apparently unsatisfied, the policy waits one more sentence before again condemning conduct that “undercuts public respect and support for the NFL.”

Even a first year policy student can poke holes in this joke of a policy. “Stronger” guidelines about punishment, including the length of suspensions, can easily be circumvented if the NFL discovers “mitigating factors,” a factor left up to the league and Goodell’s discretion. No timetable is placed upon these investigations into personal conduct, instead leaving the length of these amorphous inquiries also up to Goodell’s discretion. Final decision-making authority does not lie with an independent arbitrator, instead resting, again, on Goodell’s discretion. Notice a troubling theme? Robert Kraft, owner of the Super Bowl champion Patriots and a member of the committee that helped shape the new policy, waited less than an hour after the big reveal to admit that the policy has little to do with promoting decent conduct and supporting survivors and much more to do with “the long-term best interests of the game.” In other words, the league embarrassed itself in obvious fashion, went on a public relations tour promising to improve, and ended up with a toothless document that substantively changed little to nothing about the NFL’s personal conduct policy. As The Huffington Post pointed out in 2016, the policy isn’t particularly effective because it wasn’t designed to be.

Playing out parallel to this performative hand-wringing is the frustrating saga of Colin Kaepernick, a pretty good quarterback who remains unsigned because he has the audacity to exercise Constitutional rights. His kneeling protest speaks to the systemic racism and police brutality that plague our society. All other justifications for Kaepernick’s continued unemployment remain ridiculous. Statistically, he deserves to be a professional quarterback. Physically, he continues to work out and remains in peak condition.

The Kareem Hunt case overflows with reasons to be upset and ashamed. As many have noted, the NFL couldn’t obtain the damning video that TMZ seemingly expended roughly zero resources to find despite the league’s eye-watering wealth and investigative power. Cleveland police who responded to the incident in question perpetuated troubling baked-in misogyny in our criminal justice system by refusing to assign a detective to the case because the woman suffered only “minor injuries.” The NFL’s investigation is somehow still ongoing, despite the existence of a video showing Kareem Hunt kicking a woman. The same league that spent almost $15 million and multiple years investigating whether the Patriots may have slightly deflated footballs before a game is still thinking about Hunt’s culpability despite a video showing him violating at least four bullet points on the league’s list of prohibited conduct. Finally, and maybe most galling, multiple teams have expressed interest in signing Hunt once Commissioner Goodell concludes the investigation, regardless of his actions and possible suspension.

The hypocrisy of a league eager to paint its players and owners as upstanding citizens becomes inescapably plain under the lightest possible scrutiny. The NFL’s entire enterprise has never been about being a positive force for the nation or developing upstanding young people. This is about burnishing and protecting the NFL’s ubiquitous shield logo, a symbol of what remains one of the most potent socioeconomic organizations in American public life and a money-making machine of dizzying proportion. Domestic violence by NFL players, highlighted recently by Kareem Hunt but inescapable if you follow professional football, is treated as a nuisance on the road to a waterfall of money instead of the disgusting act that it is.

Individual teams and the league as a whole have made a calculation. They believe that the benefit of signing a domestic abuser who plays football outweighs the benefit of signing a nonviolent protester who plays football well. The NFL is like a double-shot espresso distillation of cultural crisis in the US – an organization governed by a fraternity of white and wealthy men who appear more troubled by a person kneeling during a song than they do by despicable violence perpetrated by the players that build and grow their fortunes. The continued support of players like Hunt and the dismissal of players like Kaepernick shows that this discussion has nothing to do with football talent and everything to do with a culture that supports abusers but feels queasy about phrases like “Black Lives Matter.”

So how can an organization support a domestic abuser but also repeatedly reject a person exercising nonviolent protest? It can if that organization is the National Football League, an institution that seems intent on catering to the whims and pocket books of the most exclusive group of rich guys in the world instead of doing anything approaching what is right.

Spencer Bowen is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and a Senior Editor of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal.

This article is an opinion piece, and the opinions expressed represent the author alone. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.