When a powerful organization fails at even the most basic investigative tasks, one wonders whether getting at the truth was ever really the goal.
By John Nardizzi and Ariella Nardizzi
This NFL season is notable for once again highlighting how a large American business can stumble through an internal investigation, allowing violent acts by an employee to go unpunished until an enterprising reporter uncovers video evidence. The latest incident came to light on November 30, when running back Kareem Hunt’s career with the Kansas City Chiefs came to a startling halt after tabloid news outlet TMZ released video footage of him kicking a woman in a hotel hallway in February, 2018.
We live in an era where violence against women receives unprecedented scrutiny—at long last. Yet while the NFL code of conduct requires it to investigate any player who directs “actual or threatened physical violence against another person,” their response here was comically inept.
Perhaps the NFL actually believes in the importance of disciplining players who assault people. Goodell often trumpets the hiring of retired law enforcement agents and prosecutors with fancy titles to investigate on behalf of the league. But once defanged of the powers they had as law enforcement (the ability to issue subpoenas), these former agents have proved inept at obtaining information that more creative investigative reporters seem to obtain on a regular basis. Information, after all, is usually the first line of defense.
The NFL put little actual effort into obtaining information in the Hunt case. Fault not only lies in the hands of the NFL and its all-powerful commissioner Roger Goodell, but with police and private security as well. No one succeeded here; it’s interesting to consider why that may have been.
On February 10, 2018, Hunt was enjoying his first offseason as a professional football player. After a night of clubbing in Cleveland, Hunt and his friends returned to a hotel where Hunt kept a residential apartment. They were joined by 19-year-old Kent State student Abby Ottinger and her friend. According to an ESPN article by Kevin Van Valkenburg and Michael Rothstein, the night took a turn for the worse when the men asked the girls to leave. Ottinger refused on the grounds of not having enough money to pay for a $112 Uber ride.
Hunt’s former teammate, Rayshawn Watkins, described a scene where the girls began to get aggressive—violent, even—after they were told to go home. Watkins also maintained that Hunt had no role in this altercation, saying he’d retired to his room earlier in the night.
In the video leaked by TMZ, it’s evident that Hunt was involved from the start.
Here’s how it plays out in the footage: After a physical scuffle between the petite college student and the bulky running back, Hunt’s friends attempt to hold him back as Ottinger stands at a distance. Hunt then pushes back, falling into a friend, who unstably hurtles into Ottinger. Ottinger goes flying into the wall and appears dazed—she’s slow to get up from the floor. As Ottinger attempts to stand, Hunt breaks through and kicks the already-stunned girl back to the ground.
Failing Where Others Have Succeeded
A league source said the NFL attempted to view video footage of the incident but were told it was only available to law enforcement officials. So how could TMZ get their hands on a copy of the footage when the NFL could not? A common and obvious tactic for any investigator is to immediately gather any video evidence and interview witnesses. The Chiefs and the NFL have defended their failure to acquire the video by trying to take the high road: “We don’t pay for video evidence,” Goodell said. “That’s not appropriate for a league or organization to do that.”
Goodell is being disingenuous here—there was no need to pay. In this case, the NFL had the right to demand a certain level of cooperation from their player. As an employee of the Chiefs, Hunt was bound by a code of conduct negotiated by the players’ union. Hunt was also a resident of the building, and the NFL could have compelled him to arrange a viewing of the video with NFL investigators in the hotel security office. This is common practice in internal investigations.
Moreover, investigators often succeed in obtaining video in much less advantageous circumstances, without breaking any laws or paying anyone off. The NFL reportedly retains investigators in different cities that host NFL franchises for circumstances such as these.
The situation was set up perfectly for the Chiefs and the NFL to succeed. Instead, they blew it.
The NFL also reviewed police reports regarding the altercation and spoke to some of Hunt’s witnesses in February. Yet, incredibly, the NFL never actually interviewed Hunt directly. Nor did anyone in the organization interview Ottinger. Meanwhile, a lone reporter took the initiative to at least attempt to see the victim in person and learned that she wanted to drop the matter due to stress from media attention.
What raises even more questions is the fact that the league received a copy of the incident report back in February but didn’t make an official public records request until after the video was released. That order of events smells less like due diligence and more like damage control.
As if Hunt’s violent actions weren’t bad enough, the steps following the victim’s report to police demonstrated an utter lack of interest in her personal safety—on the part of everyone involved. Though the officers on duty were encouraged by witnesses to check the footage, police didn’t see it that night, suggesting at one point they could only do so with a subpoena. And despite evidence that the hotel was the site of an assault, the only person arrested that night was a 29-year-old man who had videotaped Ottinger’s encounter with the hotel staff and allowed her to use his phone to call 911 after the front desk clerk refused to let her make a call. The police confiscated his phone after hotel security director Tyler Krajcik asked them to, adding yet another inept layer to a messy investigation and strengthening the appearance of powerful parties protecting their interests, at the expense of a powerless victim.
For many months after the incident, what occurred in the hallway remained completely hidden from the public eye. By the time the video was leaked, the NFL was far more interested in covering its failures than in conducting an internal investigation.
The mistakes made in the Hunt inquiry have some unidentified team owners questioning why the NFL is in the investigation business at all.
Because in the end, what matters to the NFL is not an investigation of a player’s violent actions against a woman. This is investigation as tabloid spectacle, an art form to amuse us. In the Big Show, it doesn’t matter how things really are; it only matters how they look. After all, this is a league that spent more money investigating .5 ounces of air in a deflated football than it did in looking into a player’s alleged assault of a teenage girl.
Like a footballing Clouseau, the lead detective—Goodell—takes the hits and makes us laugh while the bloated billion-dollar empire rolls on, heedless of the damage left in its wake.
About the authors:
Ariella Nardizzi is a student at the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in journalism and a minor in global studies. She runs her own travel blog, writes for a student-run news publication, and is a writer and copy editor for a literary magazine.
John Nardizzi is an investigator, lawyer, and writer. His Boston-based firm NARDIZZI & ASSOCIATES, INC., focuses on civil and criminal trial work. His first crime novel TELEGRAPH HILL was lauded for “lyrical prose and intimate observations of lesser-known San Francisco neighborhoods.” His second novel will be published soon.