Vahe Gregorian

Tyreek Hill won’t be charged. But do the ends justify the means for the Chiefs?

No doubt some celebrated Thursday when Johnson County district attorney Steve Howe announced that his office had “declined to file any charges against Tyreek Hill and Crystal Espinal” after reviewing investigations into allegations of abuse of their 3-year-old child that were conducted by the Overland Park Police Department and the Kansas Department of Children and Families.

But Howe’s next words and, indeed, the entire tone of his extraordinary news conference Wednesday should give pause to anyone, including the Chiefs, who thinks this was somehow some sort of vindication of the budding superstar receiver.

“We are deeply troubled by this situation and are concerned about the health and welfare of the child in question,” Howe said, immediately adding, “We believe that a crime has occurred. However, the evidence in this case does not conclusively establish who committed the crime against this child. Criminal cases must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt by admissible evidence, not speculation, rumor or hearsay.

“Despite this decision, there will be a continued involvement by state officials to ensure the safety of the child. Those actions are separate and apart from our decision on criminal charges.”

In fact, Howe almost couldn’t have been clearer had he stood there and said this does not exonerate Hill, whose past (he pleaded guilty in 2015 to felony domestic assault and battery by strangulation of Espinal, his then-pregnant girlfriend in December 2014) makes this all the more distressing to process.

Something disturbing went on here, something that has and continues to threaten the welfare of a helpless child, and one way or another Howe is calling out Hill as complicit.

His stance was so emphatic that the Chiefs and the NFL, tin-eared as they might want to be, may be hard-pressed to rationalize or plead plausible deniability about Hill’s culpability in the situation.

Because logic says that the DA implied Hill either caused harm to his child (who has suffered injuries that The Star has reported included a broken arm) or worked to suppress or obstruct information about how he came to be hurt and removed from the home … something Howe seemed to acknowledge is continuing by calling the child “safe” amid saying he was worried about his health and welfare.

The child was hurt enough and in such a way that Howe repeatedly indicated that the only reason charges aren’t being brought is this:

Authorities aren’t getting the fundamental cooperation they need from the engaged couple with a troubled history, a couple who have so much to gain (tens of millions of dollars if Hill signs the long-term deal his rare and remarkable skills merit) and lose (their 3-year-old son and the twins with which she’s pregnant) and seem unified in obfuscating the situation in a way that exasperates Howe.

“As a prosecutor, as a father of four kids, yes, it frustrates me (when) somebody hurts a child and you can’t do anything about it,” Howe said.

Actually, in essence, Howe did do something about it.

Because of the unusually high-profile nature of this situation, he took the opportunity not only to shine as much light as he could on this matter but to speak out on behalf of victims.

He pulled back the curtain on the sort of thing that happens too often behind the scenes to those who can’t speak for or defend themselves against those who are supposed to protect them.

“It happens each and every day across this country, where prosecutors believe they know who’s associated with committing a particular crime … and can’t prove it,” Howe said. “Our criminal justice system is based on the fact that we would rather let guilty people go free than convict innocent people. And that is the premise that we work on.”

It’s still the best system going, he’d say, but its flaws make it vulnerable to situations such as these. When it was suggested it had failed a child, Howe lamented, “in a sense, yes.”

All of which now takes us back to a familiar crossroads with Hill, whose initial presence with the Chiefs posed a fundamental dilemma: How do you root for someone who had pleaded guilty to what he had pleaded guilty of doing?

That had ebbed the last few years as he became a star but also because he conveyed contrition and fulfilled court-ordered mandates and by all indications was a great teammate and good citizen.

In fact, Hill seemed the embodiment of the story everyone should want to see: a tale of atonement and second chances seized, not to mention riveting to watch between his game-breaking play and sideline antics.

When his three-year deferred sentence ended last August, Hill’s conviction in Payne County, Okla., was expunged and county assistant DA for domestic violence Debra Vincent said she had no reason to doubt he was on the right trail.

“Who’s to say that this wasn’t life-changing in how he looked at that part of his life?” she said in a phone interview at the time.

But now, alas, you can’t help but wonder this: Who’s to say it was life-changing, either?

If you aren’t wondering, then you don’t want the real answer.

So as the child protection investigation continues, and the NFL deliberates how much, if any, suspension time Hill should serve, the Chiefs are the ones left with the more basic and telling questions about his continued presence here.

Is the pursuit of a Super Bowl more important than what they stand for … or will stand for? Do the ends justify the means to the Chiefs? How does an organization that likes to brag about its culture and place in the community reconcile what Howe conveyed Thursday about a man who already had been living on a second-chance premise?

Die-hard fans will seek to see this differently, of course, because it’s hard not to see what you want to see when it’s a passionate cause and they can cling to the literal aspect of Hill not being charged.

But the broader truth is this: Howe didn’t let Hill off the hook on Thursday, and now the Chiefs need to decide whether that actually matters to them or not.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.