Several years ago, when a high-profile NFL agent was shopping the services of a player beneath a domestic violence cloud, one overriding point became clear as he dealt with teams: Make the legal allegations against the player go away and the phone would start ringing.
“Teams didn’t want anything to do with him,” the agent recalled Thursday. “But once the charges were dropped, everyone in the league was calling.”
The agent’s point:
“The only thing Tyreek Hill should be worrying about [is] whether or not he’s going to be prosecuted for a crime,” the agent said. “If he gets past that, NFL teams will give him another chance. Whether or not he gets charged legally is what they care about.”
It's a simple message: The NFL's discipline is temporary, but legal discipline could be career-ending.
This is the brass tacks reality for Hill, whose exchanges with the league’s domestic violence investigators hit a significant public relations phase on Thursday: The leaking of his defense.
More often than not, a legal allegation or exposure of evidence is followed by a significant defense leak that is aimed at repaving the narrative. That’s how the four-page response from Hill’s lawyer, N. Trey Pettlon, ends up in the public light Thursday. It attempts to set the stage for a battle with the league that is on a track toward critical mass.
But as an agent noted Thursday, what matters for Hill’s NFL career is more simple than whether or not the league delivers a suspension. Being charged with a crime and potentially facing an ugly public trial – that is what could mean the difference between remaining in the NFL or becoming one of the few players (i.e., Ray Rice and Josh Brown) to have the league collectively freeze them out following revelations of violent behavior.
Tyreek Hill sends message to DA
And make no mistake, Thursday’s letter to the NFL was an important piece of information for the Johnson County District Attorney’s office. That office has reportedly reopened the child abuse investigation into Hill and fiancée Crystal Espinal, following a leaked recording that suggested violence toward the couple’s child, and either obstruction or outright deception that may have occurred during the investigation that followed.
As much as the letter from Hill’s attorney may have been aimed at pushing back on the NFL’s domestic violence investigators, it was also pointed toward district attorney Steve Howe. It was Howe who previously said he believed a crime occurred involving Hill and Espinal’s son, while lamenting a lack of cooperation to bring charges. Now Howe has audio that includes the suggestion that the couple was violent toward their son, and that Espinal might have helped to cover up details about Hill’s involvement when speaking to investigators from the police department and child protective services.
In a sense, the letter from Hill’s lawyer to the NFL is now also a form of testimony to the DA. One in which the overriding majority of the letter is an explanation of the troubling audio dialogue, built around a lone piece of evidence: An alleged text exchange between a phone belonging to Hill and a phone belonging to Espinal, in which Espinal says she – and not Hill – was the abuser of their son.
Unanswered questions about Hill’s alleged text conversation
There is one foundational question about that letter to the NFL and the purported text exchange inside it: Does Howe and the Johnson County District Attorney’s office believe the content?
The other critical questions:
Does the DA believe that Hill abused his son, as Espinal alleges on the audio when speaking to Hill? Does the DA believe, as the letter asserts, it was actually Espinal who was abusive? Does the DA believe that Hill was merely being hyperbolic on the audio, when he responded to Espinal’s contention that his son was “terrified” of him by saying to Espinal: “You need to be terrified of me, too, dumb bitch.”
Beyond whether the DA’s office accepts Hill’s framing of the words on the audio recording, there is the now-pressing reference to the alleged text exchange between phones belonging to Hill and his fiancee:
Tyreek: “Crystal you know I didn’t cause any bruising or harm to [our son.] But for some reason I still may be charged.”
Crystal: “I know you didn’t. I did. I hurt [our son], I’m the one that did it. I was hurt and mad at you so I blamed you for everything.”
In the letter to the NFL, the lone context for that exchange is that it occurred after the couple’s trip to Dubai in March. It doesn’t address whether the alleged exchange happened after the troubling audio conversation between the pair was released on April 25.
All of this makes a number of questions surrounding the alleged texts important.
What date were they sent? Did the parties know the audio had been leaked to a media outlet when the texts were sent? What is the evidence of who sent or replied in the exchanges beyond the devices used?
Another now-pressing issue: If Espinal sent that text, does she now face charges for an admission of abuse?
Beyond that is another potentially significant moment in the audio tape that the letter to the NFL failed to address: Espinal stating that “I rode for you against that detective and the C.P.S. people.” That appears to be Espinal referring to her interactions with child protective services and a police detective investigating the case. A key question is likely to be what Espinal meant when she said she “rode for” Hill, including what impact that had on the truthfulness of statements she made in the investigation. That might have an impact on whether Espinal could be subject to charges for obstructing an investigation.
There is a significant number of new questions raised for the district attorney’s office. Not only by the audio recording leaked on April 25, but also in the response by Hill’s lawyer on Thursday. On a parallel track, the NFL’s domestic violence unit, led by Lisa Friel, is sure to be asking many of the same questions, with a league suspension hanging in the balance.
But one overriding reality hasn’t changed for Hill’s career since this all surfaced. His long-term future in the NFL, including whether he stays with the Chiefs or lands elsewhere when this is over, is entirely on the line right now. And in the cold, callous and ugly reality of the NFL, the determination of that will have little to do with whether Hill abused his son – and everything to do with whether he ends up being prosecuted for it.
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