Kareem Hunt: NFL Test Case for Success Under the Personal Conduct Policy

Today the NFL announced that Cleveland Browns running back Kareem Hunt has been suspended for 8 games following the conclusion of the NFL’s investigation into multiple incidents of violence this past year. Much like the infamous Ray Rice video, TMZ released video of Hunt assaulting a young woman in a Cleveland hotel in February, 2018. Shortly after the video went viral in November, the Kansas City Chiefs released Hunt – and a second video became public, showing Hunt in an altercation at a Kansas City bar. This incident was followed by another several months later in which Hunt attacked another patron at an Ohio resort – which was not caught on camera.

Pursuant to the terms of the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy, Hunt was placed on the Commissioner’s Exempt List in December while the investigation was pending. In early February, however, the Cleveland Browns signed Hunt to a contract that includes no guaranteed salary, and roster bonuses for every regular season game in which he is active in 2019. The reaction on social media was swift and furious, although the Browns were quick to note that Hunt had received treatment for alcohol abuse and anger management after being released from the Chiefs. The Browns were clearly taking a risk on Hunt, whose eligibility remained in question throughout the investigation.

Today’s announcement ends that uncertainty, and also begins a new experience for the NFL: a joint effort at rehabilitating a star player who has had multiple issues under the Personal Conduct Policy. Historically, the NFL’s application of the Personal Conduct Policy has generated criticism for its seemingly arbitrary, inconsistent and less than transparent nature. This has resulted in multiple challenges to discipline meted out pursuant to the Policy by both players and the NFLPA. (Think Ray Rice, Tom Brady and Ezekiel Elliott, just to name a few.) This time around, however, both Kareem Hunt and the NFLPA chose to accept the 8 game suspension without a murmur. In fact, in a statement released after the suspension was announced, Hunt specifically acknowledged the support from the NFLPA and THANKED the Commissioner:

“I want to again apologize for my actions last year. I know that my behavior hurt a lot of people, and I again apologize to them, . . . I respect the league’s decision on discipline, and I appreciate the time I spent with Commissioner [Roger] Goodell last week. I’m grateful for my time with the Browns over the last month and thankful to all the people in the organization that have welcomed me. I also appreciate all of the support I received from my union through this process. My commitment to earning the trust of the league, my teammates, the organization and this community through my actions will continue, and I understand there is a lot of hard work ahead of me before I’m able to fully return to playing the game I love.”

Finally, it appears that the Personal Conduct Policy will be applied as it was originally intended to be: a player with a conduct problem and underlying issues is being given support AND the opportunity to rehabilitate. The Policy specifically provides that “Any player arrested or charged with violent or threatening conduct that would violate this policy will be offered a formal clinical evaluation” at the League’s expense, with further followup and treatment to be provided as required. ” Moreover, the Policy states:

“The evaluation, counseling and other services are not disciplinary, but are instead intended to help and assist the player address the issues giving rise to the proceedings. The player’s decision to make beneficial use of these clinical services will be considered a positive factor in determining eventual discipline if a violation is found, and his satisfactory participation in counseling, treatment, or therapy may mitigate the fine or suspension that might otherwise be imposed.”

While Hunt has not been formally charged in connection with the three incidents, his conduct certainly violated the Policy. The severity of the 8 game suspension is significant. The minimum suspension pursuant to the Policy for acts of this nature is 6 games. The graphic nature of the video from the Cleveland hotel incident combined with the additional altercations in close proximity demanded that the discipline exceed the baseline.

Just as importantly, however, each of the NFL, the NFLPA and Hunt himself have acknowledged that Hunt has behavioral issues that require professional intervention. The incentive structure of his deal with the Browns in concert with the support provided by the NFLPA and the NFL give Hunt the opportunity to address those issues and rehabilitate with professional assistance as contemplated by the Policy. It is to be hoped that Hunt is able to take advantage of this second chance and move forward.

Meanwhile, Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill is now under investigation for battery and child abuse. Hill was convicted previously of domestic assault and battery in 2015, which was expunged after a three year period. It will be interesting to see how the NFL applies the Personal Conduct Policy to Hill.

– Nellie Drew

Photo Credit: AP Images/Ringer Illustration

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Helen A. “Nellie” Drew is an expert in sports law, including professional and amateur sports issues ranging from NCAA compliance and Title IX matters to facility construction, discipline of professional athletes, collective bargaining and franchise issues. Drew formerly served as an officer and in-house counsel to the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League, after previously working as outside counsel to the Sabres and the NHL. Among her more interesting experiences were assisting former USSR superstar Alexander Mogilny in obtaining asylum status in the U.S. and working on multiple NHL expansions, including San Jose, Ottawa, Florida and Tampa Bay.
Drew teaches a variety of courses that incorporate topics such as drug testing in professional sports and professional player contract negotiation and arbitration. She is especially interested in the evolving research and litigation concerning concussions in both amateur and professional sports.

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