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Kareem Hunt's Not-So-Triumphant Return

By Jack O'Connor:

In 2018, the Kansas City Chiefs boasted one of the most impressive triple-threats in the NFL. Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Kareem Hunt tore up the league for the first eleven weeks of the season, achieving a 9-2 record going into their Week 12 bye. Hunt was following up his incredible rookie season, where he led the entire league in rushing yards, with another strong performance. At this point, he was ranked ninth overall in yards from scrimmage and third in touchdowns. Two days before the Chiefs’ matchup with the Oakland Raiders, Hunt was released from the team after a video surfaced of him shoving and kicking a woman in a hotel. This week, just under three months since being released, Hunt signed with the Cleveland Browns. His issues are far from over as he remains in hot water legally and with the league.

Although Hunt is back in the league, he remains on the Commissioner’s Exempt List. This list is a designation assigned by Commissioner Roger Goodell that prevents Hunt from playing, practicing, or attending certain team activities. Hunt’s status on this list will likely stay in effect until the league concludes their investigation into Hunt’s incident and announces his suspension. According to police reports, Hunt is a suspect in an ongoing investigation by the Cleveland Police Department [1]. The NFL has made it clear that their sanctions are not affected by charges or lack thereof and they will likely issue their suspension long before that investigation concludes. The suspension will likely sideline Hunt for much of the 2019 season. The NFL revamped its personal conduct policy in the wake of the Ray Rice incident in 2014. The policy states that, “Violations involving assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault will result in a baseline six-game suspension for first offenses” [2]. There is speculation that Hunt’s actual punishment may exceed that baseline because of his involvement and allegations of two other assaults, one at a club and another at a resort. Hunt could very likely miss half the season.

This has also had serious implications for his earning potential. Hunt was in the midst of the second year of his four-year, $3.28 million contract with the Chiefs and had earned just under $1.7 million of it [3]. As a young and electrifying running back on a team that looks to be a contender for some time, Hunt could have been looking at a huge deal in two years, or possibly sooner if he negotiated an extension before the contract expired. He could have reasonably been valued in the range of backs like LeSean McCoy or Devonta Freeman, both of whom are on deals earning over $8 million per year with $18 million in guaranteed money [4]. The deal he signed with the Browns was far from that.

Hunt’s new contract is a 1-year deal worth a total of $1.1 million and it is very unlikely he will get his hands on all of that. His base salary is $645,000 and the rest must be earned. He has a $55,000 bonus if he meets certain criteria for offseason workouts and will get a $25,000 bonus for every game that he is on the Browns active roster. As previously mentioned, it is almost certain Hunt will be suspended for at least 6 weeks. This means he will not earn the $25,000 bonus for any of those weeks and will additionally lose his base salary for those weeks as well. His weekly base salary is $37,941 and when added to the roster bonus comes to a total loss of $62,941 each week he is suspended [5]. Assuming a 6-game suspension, that is $377,646 of his $1.1 million contract.

What will be most interesting is how this plays out in the long-term for Hunt. He has done some disgraceful acts and is currently paying the price. However, the NFL (its teams and fans) has a notoriously short memory in situations like these. The Browns did not have to take on Hunt but clearly the football decision outweighed concerns about Hunt and his victim. If Hunt returns to the field this season, and plays as well as he was playing at the beginning of last season, it is easy to see how the narrative around him could quickly turn. This time next year he may be negotiating and large, long-term contract. The last player to receive a 6-game suspension for domestic violence was Ezekiel Elliott. To may fans, that suspension seems like ancient history. Elliott is now coming off a 2,000-yard season and there are reports that he wants an extension before entering the last year of his deal [6]. There is reason to believe he will sign a contract similar to that of Todd Gurley who received a massive four-year, $60 million deal. His domestic violence incident clearly is not still hanging over him.

NFL players are valuable commodities, and there are not many who can perform at the level Kareem Hunt does. It has been affirmed time and again that the greater the talent of the player, the higher the tolerance by the organization. Hunt will miss a full season’s worth of football, a lot of time for a running back considering average career lengths, but he will return and get his second chance. The NFL has improved the ways they handle these situations and there may not be a perfect solution. For now, fans will have to deal with the reality that their team may sign the next player made available as a result of domestic abuse.


References:

[1] McDonald, Charles, “What we know so far about the Kareem Hun assault investigation.” SB Nation, 11 February 2019, https://www.sbnation.com/nfl/2018/11/30/18120089/kareem-hunt-chiefs-hotel-assault-nfl-suspension-released-updates

[2] Id.

[3] “NFL Contracts: Running Backs.” Over the Cap, 17 February 2019, https://overthecap.com/contracts/

[4] Id.

[5] Breech, John, “Kareem Hunt contract details revealed: Browns might not even have to pay him $1 million in 2019.” CBS Sports, 13 February 2019, https://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/kareem-hunt-contract-details-revealed-browns-might-not-even-have-to-pay-him-1-million-in-2019/

[6] Ochoa, RJ, “Report: Ezekiel Elliott wants contract extension from Cowboys this offseason.” SB Nation, Blogging the Boys, 5 January 2019, https://www.bloggingtheboys.com/2019/1/5/18169846/report-ezekiel-elliott-wants-contract-extension-from-cowboys-this-offseason


*Jack O'Connor is a first year student at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law and a staff writer for the Sports Law Society Blog.

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