Sam Mellinger

The NFL’s investigation into Tyreek Hill is over. His new reality is just beginning

Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill took control of the end zone television camera after scoring a touchdown on a pass from quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the second quarter against the Arizona Cardinals in Kansas City. It was Mahomes’ 31st touchdown pass of the 2018 regular season.
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill took control of the end zone television camera after scoring a touchdown on a pass from quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the second quarter against the Arizona Cardinals in Kansas City. It was Mahomes’ 31st touchdown pass of the 2018 regular season. KC Star file photo

Tyreek Hill will not be suspended, and the temptation is to welcome the end of a messy saga. In reality, this is only beginning.

The new challenge for Hill and the Chiefs is to forge a way forward. Together. Some of that will focus on the field. Much of it won’t. The new normal looks something like this: Hill’s name will be chanted at Arrowhead Stadium, and cursed on the road.

Nationally, many will — are — viewing the NFL’s decision to not suspend Hill after a four-month investigation involving child abuse accusations as weak, and worse. Locally, many will — are — viewing this as vindication for Hill.

The truth, as truths tend to be, is undoubtedly in the muddy middle of innocent children and a custody battle and a pending contract for generational wealth. Knowing exactly where that truth resides was always going to be difficult but has long since turned impossible.

What’s more, it doesn’t really matter. Not materially, anyway. Not in terms of how Hill’s future with the Chiefs and in the NFL will be viewed. The extremes on each side will have their takes, and those of us who believe this is far more complicated are left hoping for health and happiness for the children involved and a lot of mixed feelings.

Would the NFL have suspended Hill if his ex-fiancee Crystal Espinal had spoken to investigators? Would the NFL have even considered a suspension if Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe hadn’t gone to the extraordinary length of calling a news conference to announce he believed a crime had been committed but couldn’t prove who did it?

How much different would this have been if KCTV5 hadn’t questionably edited and presented a secret recording? If the TV station had released the entire 11 minutes of that audio in the beginning, would the focus have been more on the uglier parts of the recording and less on KCTV5’s journalistic decisions?

Or is the lack of a suspension also a function of what sure seems like the NFL’s slow shift away from the swift brand of justice that prompted some to label the league commissioner “Sheriff Roger”?

None of the answers to these questions would change the actual facts of the case, but they might have allowed for a clearer conversation about it.

We’ll never know.

The children are safe. That’s what matters. That’s always been what’s mattered. Everything else is secondary at best.

But pieces remain to be picked up. Hill and Espinal still appear in need of guidance and education on parenting. They also need to stay the heck away from each other, and if we’re forced to find a positive from an endlessly sad situation, maybe that’s it.

Their relationship appears to have always been headed toward an ugly end. At least this way, everyone is safe, and by now they seem convinced that their paths are better separate.

Of course, there is a football part of this too. Immaterial as that is when compared to the health of the children, it does exist, and that will become more apparent as time goes on.

The Chiefs remain interested in a long-term contract extension with Hill, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. But the timing and structure of that potential deal have changed dramatically.

The Chiefs entered the offseason with a plan and at least cautious optimism that deals for both Hill and defensive lineman Chris Jones would be done by the start of next week’s training camp.

Jones and the Chiefs remain far apart in negotiations — more on that in the coming days — and the team will likely allow some time to go by before engaging in more serious talks with Hill.

That negotiation will take place in a new reality. The investigation and all that it entailed likely cost Hill $20 million in up-front guaranteed money, according to a source. The Chiefs are likely to push for a different structure of payment, with the money coming more year-to-year and even week-to-week than the more typical bonus-heavy extension for a star.

Hill could still end up among the league’s highest-paid receivers, but a different contract structure would give protections to the Chiefs in case of a future suspension or lack of production.

The Chiefs likely can’t (and wouldn’t try to) include language prohibiting him from seeing Espinal. But lawyers and football decision-makers will collaborate on creating protections, both for the team and in some ways for Hill.

This new contract reality isn’t all that Hill must now adjust to. With relationships, how will he know who to trust? Friends often describe him as reserved, preferring to play video games when he’s not playing football. Will he be even less inclined to go out?

The bubble of the facility and teammates in which many NFL players exist will likely become even more important. He has excelled with an exuberant style, both in his play and celebrations. Will that be affected?

So many questions. Some will be answered, but more will not.

The Chiefs deserve some credit in this. With the benefit of time — and, it should be noted, more information and context than was publicly available — they exercised patience. When KCTV5’s edited version of the audio dropped, the Chiefs effectively suspended him.

When police and the NFL did not find enough evidence to charge or suspend him, the Chiefs welcomed Hill back. There was no league precedent to follow before. The one that exists now will be helpful should something as bizarre as this ever happen again.

But this is not an ending, and it certainly isn’t a happy ending. The Chiefs retain their star receiver with a roster capable of winning the Super Bowl.

The reality in which they will attempt to do that is much different than the one they imagined five months ago.

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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.