How the NFL’s conduct policy gives Roger Goodell power to suspend Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill

Update: According to a recording obtained and published Thursday evening by the local television station KCTV-5, Tyreek Hill’s 3-year-old son told his mother the Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver punched him. The Star’s story about that broadcast is here.

Tyreek Hill won’t face charges through the legal system, the Johnson County District Attorney announced Wednesday. But the professional future of the Chiefs’ wide receiver isn’t yet known.

Though prosecutors declined to act, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell could issue a league punishment for a violation of the NFL’s personal conduct policy via authority granted to him in Article 46 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and the NFL Players Union (NFLPA).

According to that section of the 2011 CBA, regardless of crime or legal charges, Goodell can take action against Hill for “conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football.”

Goodell most recently set a precedent for this when he suspended Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott for violating that policy in 2017. Prosecutors in Columbus, Ohio, didn’t file charges after a year-long investigation into domestic abuse allegations made by an ex-girlfriend. But Goodell and the NFL determined a six-game suspension was warranted using statements from Elliott’s former girlfriend along with photos of injuries he was accused of inflicting on her.

Following a legal battle that went all the way to a federal appeals court, in which Goodell’s power to issue punishments for off-the-field issues was ultimately upheld, Elliott dropped his appeal of the penalty and served his suspension during the second half of the 2017 season.

In Hill’s case, the investigation involves a minor. Because of that, it will be more difficult for the NFL to obtain law enforcement records related to any alleged abuse. Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe said it’s “highly unlikely” he will share information or records from the case with the NFL.

“They’re under the same standard as the rest of the media,” Howe said Wednesday. “And that is whether or not these are open records or not … It’ll probably be sealed because it’s a child protection investigation.

“Minor children have even greater protections when dealing with the criminal justice system.”

Goodell’s power to unilaterally determine league punishment for off-the-field incidents was first challenged in court when the NFLPA appealed a six-game suspension on behalf of running back Adrian Peterson.

In 2014, the NFL suspended Peterson, then a Minnesota Vikings running back, after he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor reckless assault in a child abuse case involving his 4-year-old son.

The suspension was determined prior to the league’s August 2014 introduction of a baseline six-game suspension for domestic violence incidents. After Peterson was notified of his penalty, the NFLPA filed an appeal on his behalf.

Under Article 46 of the CBA, Goodell has the right to be the arbitrator for NFL appeals. In this case, he assigned a former NFL executive to arbitrate the appeal. After evaluating the appeal, the arbitrator upheld the six-game suspension because authority given to Goodell in Article 46 allows him to punish players as he deems necessary.

This was challenged by the NFLPA, and after a lengthy court battle that concluded in 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled that the punishment was determined by plausibly following the guidelines in the CBA.

The ruling strengthened Goodell’s power to punish players, and it was strengthened further with the federal appeals court’s ruling in the Elliott case.

The NFL has declined to comment on the investigation involving Hill, and the Chiefs issued a statement late Tuesday saying they also wouldn’t comment because there is still an ongoing child protection case involving Hill.

Hill, 25, released a statement Thursday.

“I love and support my family above everything,” he said in the statement released by his attorneys. “My son’s health and happiness is my number one priority.

“I want to thank the Kansas City Chiefs, my attorneys, my agent and my union for supporting me through this.

“My focus remains on working hard to be the best person for my family and our community I can be, and the best player to help our team win.”

News had surfaced in mid-March that Overland Park police took two reports at Hill’s Johnson County home, one for battery and the other for child abuse and neglect. The police reports, dated March 5 and March 14, both involved a juvenile.

Howe, the county prosecutor, held a news conference Wednesday and announced that the criminal investigation involving Hill and his fiancee Crystal Espinal — the boy’s mother, who is also pregnant with twins — was closed and he wouldn’t be filing charges.

Howe said he believed a crime had occurred, but he couldn’t prove who committed it.

“We are deeply troubled by this situation and are concerned about the health and welfare of the child in question,” Howe said.

The Kansas Department of Children and Families has an ongoing child protection case focused on the child, Howe said.

Hill’s attorneys claimed the wide receiver’s innocence in the release sent Wednesday morning.

“Tyreek has maintained from the inception and throughout the investigation that he was innocent of any crime,” the statement from Trey Pettlon, Ryan Ginie and Julius Collins — Hill’s lawyers — read. “Contrary to some media reports, Tyreek cooperated with law enforcement, waived his Fifth Amendment rights, and answered questions from both law enforcement and DCF. He continues to cooperate with authorities.”

The Star reported last Thursday that Hill’s 3-year-old son recently was removed from the custody of Hill and his fiancee, Espinal. It isn’t clear when the boy was removed, or who the child is staying with now.

“I know DCF is involved in this, and I’m going to let DCF handle this the way they handle it, which is not in the public,” Howe said. “What I can assure the public is, he’s safe.”

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