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The NFL commissioner’s exempt list is a cop-out

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If an NFL team chooses to stick with a player accused of violence, it shouldn’t get to dodge the risks and consequences.

If Tyreek Hill were a lesser football player, he probably would’ve became a free agent shortly after allegations of child abuse surfaced.

The Kansas City Chiefs receiver hasn’t been convicted — or even charged to this point — in an investigation of an alleged child battery that ended with a broken arm for Hill’s 3-year-old son. The district attorney says a crime occurred, but still hasn’t concluded who committed it.

But it’s hard to give Hill the benefit of the doubt when he has a history of domestic violence for which he was dismissed from the Oklahoma State football team. There’s also a recently released audio recording of Hill telling his fiancée “you need to be terrified of me, too, bitch” when she says their son is afraid of his father.

Hill’s lawyer says the allegations are false and he’s currently suspended from team activities, but many players would’ve been released based on the circumstances. The most plausible explanation is because he’s a three-time Pro Bowler and one of the most explosive deep receivers in the NFL. The Chiefs drafted a speedy receiver in Mecole Hardman, but replacing Hill isn’t easy.

So instead of getting jettisoned from the roster, he’s still a member of the Chiefs and could be placed on the NFL’s equivalent of paid leave.

Hill may go on the commissioner’s exempt list, a designation that has devolved into a way to keep a star player accused of violence out of the spotlight until the dust settles.

What is the commissioner’s exempt list?

The Chiefs don’t get to decide to use the designation — only Roger Goodell can temporarily pull a player from an active roster with this particular exemption. Here’s the official definition via the NFL Player Personnel Policy Manual:

The Exempt List is a special player status available to clubs only in unusual circumstances. The List includes those players who have been declared by the Commissioner to be temporarily exempt from counting within the Active List limit. Only the Commissioner has the authority to place a player on the Exempt List; clubs have no such authority, and no exemption, regardless of circumstances, is automatic. The Commissioner also has the authority to determine in advance whether a player’s time on the Exempt List will be finite or will continue until the Commissioner deems the exemption should be lifted and the player returned to the Active List.

In layman’s terms, the league office can cite “unusual circumstances” and keep a player on the shelf for as long as it wants. That player continues to get paid while out of action.

How long it’s existed as NFL policy is tough to tell. It used to be a rarely used designation that only surfaced under circumstances you could actually consider unusual. The first real conversation of the commissioner’s exemption came in 2009, when it was used on Michael Vick after the quarterback missed two seasons while jailed on dogfighting charges.

There was a significant difference at the time, though. Vick was placed on the list by the Eagles, and could be pulled from the exemption list at the team’s discretion.

That was still the case when it was used on running back Jeff Demps in 2013, who pursued a professional track career before he was pulled from the exemption list by the Buccaneers.

In those two cases, the Eagles and Buccaneers were given a few weeks to work with players who needed some extra time. Keeping those players during that period didn’t cost a spot on their respective active rosters.

It wasn’t until 2014 — when Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, and Adrian Peterson pushed the NFL’s personal conduct policy under the microscope — that it evolved. The league took ownership of the exemption and turned it into a haven for abusers to continue getting paid while things blew over.

The exempt list is being used to avoid real decisions

Adrian Peterson was indicted for reckless or negligent injury to a child in 2014 after a police report alleged the running back used a switch (a thin branch or rod used for whipping) to discipline his child.

After some waffling about how to handle the issue, Peterson was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list. Two months later, Peterson was officially suspended by the NFL for the remainder of the 2014 season. He played in only the Vikings’ season opener, but collected about $9.68 million of his $11.75 million salary for the year.

It was the same year that also saw Greg Hardy go on the commissioner’s exempt list. The then-Carolina Panthers pass rusher was convicted of assaulting and threatening to kill an ex-girlfriend, but the conviction was dismissed during his appeal trial due to unavailability of his accuser.

Hardy played in the first game of the 2014 season, but then spent the last 15 games of the year on the commissioner’s exempt list while going through the appeal process. He collected all $13.1 million of his salary that season, before he was suspended 10 gameslater reduced to four games — for his 2015 season with the Cowboys.

The exempt list was used in 2016 on Giants kicker Josh Brown after documents showed he admitted to abusing his wife. Then it was applied twice in 2018 when linebacker Reuben Foster was arrested and charged with domestic battery, and when running back Kareem Hunt was videotaped kicking a woman while she was on the ground.

There’s nothing particularly “unusual” about the circumstances that keep bringing the commissioner’s exempt list into play. The formulaic usage essentially goes like this:

  1. Player is accused of violence
  2. Player gets paid leave on the commissioner’s exempt list
  3. Player eventually gets a suspension

Considering the NFL’s history of being alarmingly lenient on handling violence against women, it could almost be seen as a sign of progress by the league. Before running back Ray Rice was caught on video in 2014 punching and knocking his then-fiancée unconscious, players were often suspended just one game for such incidents. The firestorm of controversy forced change.

But the commissioner’s exempt list shouldn’t continue to be a way for NFL teams to temporarily shelf a player without making a real decision.

NFL teams shouldn’t get an exemption for an accused player

Hill is still under investigation and it’s entirely possible he will be cleared of all wrongdoing. And if that scenario comes to fruition, the Chiefs will be glad they didn’t cut ties with their star receiver and returner.

But the Chiefs should be the ones who are held responsible for taking that risk. The Chiefs are the ones who should face criticism for appearing to prioritize touchdowns over the safety of a 3-year-old child.

The team doesn’t have the best track record. Hunt was only released by the Chiefs after video surfaced that showed his assault incident. It wasn’t for his actions in the video, but for lying to team officials about what happened. In April, the Chiefs traded for Frank Clark, a player who was dismissed from the Michigan football team after he was arrested and charged with domestic violence.

If that same team wants to keep Hill on the roster while the NFL decides if it will punish the receiver? Fine. That shouldn’t mean Kansas City gets a free spot on the active roster to work around Hill’s absence and dull the backlash, though.

If Hill goes on the exempt list soon, it’ll be the rare time it happens during the offseason. There isn’t as much urgency for the Chiefs to keep all roster spots open with the regular season four months away. Still, the burden should be on them.

The Panthers would’ve had a tougher decision to make about keeping Hardy in 2014 if it meant they had to play with a 52-man active roster instead of 53 like every other team.

Special circumstances could always arise that make the commissioner’s exempt list worth keeping. There could be another player like Jeff Demps who puts the NFL on hold to pursue success in another sport. That’s just one example of something that could qualify as “unusual circumstances” and warrant the designation.

But for now, the NFL is seemingly making up rules as it goes — with little transparency about the process — to absolve teams of responsibility. It should be the teams, and the teams alone, that deal with consequences of sticking by a player accused of violence.