Clark Hunt wants Chiefs ‘to own’ their mistakes. Here’s what that should look like

Clark Hunt stood in front of a dozen or so reporters and offered humility. Finally. Humility not from himself, necessarily, but from the Chiefs as an organization. Maybe this can mean more honesty and progress from a franchise that too often talks better than it acts.

This Saturday meeting with reporters was part of the normal routine around the NFL Draft, but Hunt knew the questions would center on Tyreek Hill.

Hill is the star receiver who has been asked to stay away from team activities after KCTV-5 released audio of him threatening his fiancee. There were also apparent references to Hill punching his son in the chest, and an accusation that the son told investigators Hill broke his arm. It’s all repulsive.

In Hunt’s first public words about the situation, he further distanced the Chiefs from Hill by repeatedly saying “he’s not with the franchise.” Hunt was otherwise vague on the franchise’s plans from here, referencing “ongoing investigations.”

But this was notable: Almost exactly three years ago, the Chiefs defended their drafting of Hill with arrogance and delusion. Hill was dropped from many draft boards because of a guilty plea to charges of domestic assault and battery by strangulation. At the time of the draft, he was still on probation. The Chiefs took him anyway.

Then-general manager John Dorsey said the club should be trusted, citing the “due diligence” it had done in researching Hill and his background. Head coach Andy Reid referenced experience with Michael Vick after the dog-fighting scandal and his family’s work with domestic violence advocacy.

There was never a single moment that the leadership core appeared to understand how easily this could go wrong.

“We would never put anybody in this community in harm’s way,” Dorsey said.

“We’re not going to do anything to put this community or this organization in a bind,” Reid said.

It was ignorant, patronizing, and worse. If they bothered to ask or listen to those who live in the world of domestic violence prevention and awareness, they would have known that no amount of a scouting department’s due diligence could provide the certainty to think like that.

Here was Hunt’s response on Saturday when asked if his confidence in so-called due diligence has changed with Hill’s trouble:

“I think on every player you bring into the organization there’s some element of risk,” Hunt said. “Could be his playing ability, could be things that distract him off the field as well as trouble they get into. That’s a risk you take. It’s something that as a franchise we have to be willing to own when it doesn’t go the right way. That’s something I believe in and something I know (GM Brett Veach) believes in as well.”

A few points. Those words should have been said and believed years ago. You don’t get credit for the baseline achievement of recognizing reality.

But this does signal important progress and provide a window into how the organization might operate.

Hill’s legal future remains uncertain and the audio presents many difficult questions. The recording was made by Crystal Espinal, Hill’s fiancee and mother of their son — as well as the couple’s twins who are due soon — and the woman he pleaded guilty to hurting four years ago.

In the audio, Hill seemed to deny breaking his son’s arm but acknowledged other actions that could be considered abuse. Espinal also may have incriminated herself.

But the Chiefs and the NFL have different standards, priorities and procedures than the legal system.

The expectation around the league and with at least some inside the organization is that Hill will be released. The process now is largely about confirming and investigating information. If the decision to cut him is made, the Chiefs will have to determine exactly how and when to do it.

There are layers of complexity with the league, including certain obstacles that mean Hill is suspended in practice but the team is unable or unwilling to call it a suspension. League mechanics are further delayed by the draft.

Other reasons for the delay could range from the human to the practical. The Chiefs suspended Kareem Hunt immediately when video of him kicking a woman surfaced five months ago, but it’s worth noting that there was no investigation by police or child protective services.

The organization has also been stunned by this news about Hill. There is an enormous and meaningful gap in how the Chiefs and the general public viewed Hill.

Even after Hill’s ascension to stardom, the guilty plea never truly left our consciousness. It was hard not to connect Hill’s past to the news that authorities were investigating him and Espinal.

But the Chiefs had become convinced of Hill’s sincerity and evolution. After his probation expired last summer, he reconnected with Espinal and brought their son to the facility and team events. Club officials noted how much the boy seemed to love Hill.

Reconciling that with what the world heard on the audio is difficult. Maybe that’s naive, and maybe coaches and officials were merely blinded by his talent. But it’s also their reality.

Another potential explanation for the delay is that the Chiefs might want to create a meaningful plan for Hill. Releasing him would be justified and widely applauded but could make his family situation worse if it’s done without support.

Because Hill needs more than punishment. He also needs help. Many who are close to Hill — including those who believe the Chiefs will or should release him — note that the audio depicts a man who believes punching and using a belt on a 3-year-old boy is responsible parenting. We’re all products of our past and Hill’s childhood included few if any examples that would’ve showed him a better way.

Let’s be clear: That is not an excuse for what it appears Hill has done, and certainly isn’t an excuse for the way he talked to Espinal (even without their past).

But it is a flashing light of warning to many who grew to care about Hill that merely discarding him would be well-intentioned and righteous in the moment but also possibly counterproductive in the longer term.

Maybe you don’t care about any of this. Maybe you simply want Hill punished and out of public view. That’s understandable. But there can be no confusion about whether Hill’s family will be well-served without him receiving help. He can be punished by the league and even the legal system, but, well, then what?

There could be a healthy debate about whether Hill should be given another opportunity to play in the NFL. We should all welcome second chances, but third chances are different. That debate will happen.

But at the moment, the focus should remain on what’s best for Hill’s son, fiancee and those twins on the way.

Working through that should be part of what Clark Hunt meant when he said “we have to be willing to own when it doesn’t go the right way.” Releasing Hill without a plan would be fake leadership and the easy way out.

If the Chiefs are truly willing to own their mistake, they’ll do everything possible to support Hill even without football, and be more realistic in the future about just how far their due diligence should be trusted.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.