WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — "I did do some s--t wrong," says Greg Hardy, fresh from his first game as a member of the developmental Spring League, where he's trying for the umpteenth time to return to professional football. But Hardy isn't referring to the 2014 assault charges that earned him a four-game suspension from the NFL—that much, he wants to make sure is clear.
"It gets crossed up when I say certain things," he adds, alluding to his various attempts at contrition, none of which acknowledge the massive dossier of now-publicly-available evidence that he allegedly threw his ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder against a wall and onto a pile of assault rifles before choking her and threatening to kill her. "But there were some lines that I crossed as an athlete, responsibility-wise."
Instead, Hardy saves his regret for the wrongs that led the Dallas Cowboys to decide against re-signing him in 2016—the ones that appear to have actually cost him his job as a football player. Things like getting in arguments on the sideline (even with coaches), missing team meetings and making comments about a player's wife.
"That was just me getting back into the swing of things, realizing where I was," Hardy tells B/R.
But, he insists, the NFL's own conclusion that Hardy "violated the Personal Conduct Policy by using physical force against Nicole Holder in at least four instances" is false.
"Guilty? I mean, the United States of America said I wasn't," he says. "But apologetic, most definitely. I'm sorry for anything I did wrong. I never wanted to do anything wrong."
Hardy's non-apology shouldn't come as a surprise. Though fans league-wide have had to grapple with domestic violence over and over, figuring out what to expect from players facing these kinds of allegations is still a puzzle—especially when there's no conviction. Too often, platitudes about "taking responsibility" and "becoming a better man" take the place of actually changing someone's behavior, even when, as in Hardy's case, the players are no longer in danger of being prosecuted (Hardy's record was expunged of all charges in 2015).
Based on the outcome of the 2017 NFL draft, during which several men who've faced or are currently facing allegations of violence against women were selected by NFL teams, Hardy's priorities are in order. The justifications of the teams that chose said players—including Dede Westbrook, Caleb Brantley and Joe Mixon—felt perfunctory, probably because they were. "We don't take it lightly," Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell told reporters of Westbrook's "off-the-field issues," without elaborating on what exactly taking it seriously would mean to the Jaguars. "It's something that is very concerning for us," Browns executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown said of Brantley after the draft, also without any indication of what information made them feel confident that Brantley's behavior toward women wouldn't continue to be a liability in the future.
What NFL fans have seen through so many botched press conferences and suspensions is that despite the league's insistence that it wants to take a stand to stop violence against women, at the team level a player's ability on the field still far outweighs the NFL's alleged imperative to hold him accountable for his actions. Hardy's unsportsmanlike behavior during his last year in the league is much more likely to cost him the final shot he's hoping for than his legal troubles (he also took a plea deal on a 2016 drug charge earlier this year), which explains why he's more penitent toward his former coach Jason Garrett than Nicole Holder.
"He was not loved in the building in Dallas, and that's a big red flag to the rest of the NFL," one league insider says. "I think his career is over."
Most important for GMs, in 2015 Hardy's stats sank to their lowest since his rookie year—just six sacks and 35 tackles in 12 starts. In spite of that, though, he's still being considered by teams.
"I didn't come specifically to see [Hardy], but watching him play I was like, 'OK, not bad'," says an AFC scout who attended the Spring League. "His abilities in the past have basically no bearing on his current value, so I'm saying to myself, 'Let me see how he plays.'"
The fact that he even has the faintest chance of making it back to the NFL seems shocking in the wake of his arrest and suspension, especially given the gruesome details (and later, photos). Hardy was initially convicted, but he won his appeal after Holder refused to testify a second time, reportedly after receiving a settlement. Hardy argued that he was the victim, that Holder attacked him and that any injuries she had were self-inflicted. In an interview with ESPN's Adam Schefter last year, he said the photos could be doctored. Hardy, a Pro Bowl defensive end, is listed as 6'5", 280 pounds. None of that information—nor a lost season of play while he was on the commissioner's exempt list during the 2014 season—kept the Cowboys from signing him, and it appears that none of it is a deal-breaker for NFL teams today.
Hardy, naturally, disagrees. "I'm kind of on the black side of things right now, with the perception of my persona," he says now. "It's hard to fight the fans. You can't be right about somebody if you don't know them—that's just a basic common decency fact. But nobody wants to attest to that, so I have to show that Greg Hardy is not a f--king psychopath. And I say f--king because it's that extreme. I want people to see that, instead of reading and believing the latest stories."
I tell Hardy it's hard to ignore the stories and the evidence, especially for people who may have experienced domestic violence themselves. "It's not really that hard," he insists. When asked what he thought of how the Indoor Football League's Salt Lake Screaming Eagles grappled with his toxic reputation—asking fans to vote on his potential signing (they voted no, by a hair)—Hardy shakes his head and clenches his jaw. "It's not something I'm not used to, but why they would just put it out there like that, especially when I'm coming to [the Spring League]?"
Hardy is clearly used to talking about what he calls his "incidents," but what's still missing is genuine remorse. When pressed to get specific what exactly he's "apologetic" for, he offers word salad ("I have to push towards understanding what people don't understand"). When asked if he respects women, Hardy's response is unequivocal. "Of course, I've said that plenty of times—people choose not to listen to it," he says. "If it comes off as uncontrite, that's not my intent."
Instead, Hardy insists that he can redeem himself, that he can convince football fans and teams that all the evidence they've seen—that the NFL's investigation and subsequent suspension—was a farce. His website homepage says "Greg Hardy 2.0: The Ultimate Comeback." For Hardy, coming to the Spring League was "an opportunity to play and be a part of something, to show that I can get along"—another reminder that it's more important for Hardy's career to prove he can get along with his teammates than that he can treat women with respect. And why would he think any differently, when that's the message the NFL sends about what is important?
"I'm working to get the Greg Hardy name back in good standings, and for redemption," he says. "An apologetic, happy comeback. Get to the Hall of Fame."
Greg Hardy's suspension was supposed to be part of the vanguard of NFL enforcement regarding violence against women—an example that post-Ray Rice, the league had learned to take allegations against its players seriously. Two years later, the only thing it's proved is that if Hardy were still considered a dominant pass-rusher and a team leader, a domestic violence case would be the last thing to stop him on the road to Canton.