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The Unsolvable Joe Mixon Problem

This isn’t the first time a highly touted prospect enters the NFL with a history of violence. It won’t be the last. But as a chorus of fan dissent rises around Mixon’s inevitable selection in this week’s NFL draft, it’s important to ask what power those voices hold if teams refuse to listen to them.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

The top recommended Google search for Joe Mixon, ahead of “joe mixon stats” and “joe mixon draft” and “joe mixon combine,” is “joe mixon video.”

You probably know what people are looking for. They are not looking for tape of his time at Freedom High School, where he became the no. 1 running back recruit in the country, or footage of him setting Oklahoma’s single-season all-purpose yardage record in 2016. They don’t want to see his acrobatic catches or upfield cuts or the feats of athleticism that have led scouts to hail his on-field ability.

They want instead to see surveillance video from inside Pickleman’s Gourmet Cafe in Norman, Oklahoma, where in the early hours of July 25, 2014, Mixon entered and exchanged words with 20-year-old Amelia Molitor, who shoved and then slapped him. He responded by punching her in the head. As she tumbled to the floor, the side of her face slammed into a table. Mixon left as she fell, glancing over his shoulder as he walked out the door to where Molitor lay motionless and bleeding on the ground. She would undergo eight hours of surgery to repair four facial fractures, including a broken jaw.

Google’s search recommendations aren’t actually recommendations. They’re aggregations of users’ most frequent queries, the website’s best guess of what you want to see based on what so many other people wanted, too. The search engine shows that for each peak of interest in Mixon, there’s a smaller, corresponding one for “joe mixon video.” The surveillance footage was shown to Oklahoma media by police in 2014 and then released to the public at the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s behest this past December, and as interest in Mixon has grown, so too has the desire to see what he did that night in Norman.

The 2017 NFL draft begins on Thursday night, and at some point over the draft’s three days, Mixon will be selected by an NFL team. It could even happen in the first round, due to the simple fact that he is very good at football. It might be your team that calls him on the phone, your hometown whose name commissioner Roger Goodell reads alongside his, your logo of choice that flashes on screen as Mixon is hugged and cried on and clapped heartily on the back by friends and family. It might be your stomach that drops.

(Screen shot <em>via </em><a href="http://newsok.com/article/5530930"><em>The Oklahoman</em></a><em>)</em>
(Screen shot via The Oklahoman)

Mixon is far from the only member of the 2017 draft class with allegations of violence in his recent past: There’s Florida’s Caleb Brantley, who is facing a misdemeanor battery charge after a woman alleged that he punched her in the face, knocking her out; former TCU and Louisville player Devonte Fields, whose misdemeanor assault charge after an ex-girlfriend alleged that he punched and threatened her was dropped in exchange for his enrollment in four anger management courses; Temple’s Haason Reddick and Dion Dawkins, who landed in a rehabilitative program after they were accused of being involved in a fight that resulted in a facial fracture for a third Temple student; Ohio State’s Gareon Conley, who is accused of rape. There are others, some of whom have seen courtrooms and some of whom have not, but all of whom have almost certainly seen enough success on football fields to earn places in the NFL.

In the coming months, each of these players will likely jog onto a field below a bowl of tens of thousands of people who want to see their team win. Each will stand a chance — a pretty good one, in Mixon’s case — of being so adept at helping teams do that that they will become the stars of whole coming seasons of postgame shows, that they will light up people’s fantasy boards, that young children will beg their parents to buy them jerseys with the players’ names — with his name — stitched onto the back. What can you say? What can you do? You weren’t there that night in Norman. You didn’t draft the guy. You’ve loved your team since maybe before Mixon was even born.

Joe Mixon (Screenshot via YouTube)
Joe Mixon (Screenshot via YouTube)

Sooners coach Bob Stoops has said that if the incident with Molitor happened in 2016 instead of 2014, the running back would have been dismissed from the team, which is another way of saying that if they knew they were going to get this much shit from everybody, maybe — maybe — they would have altered their course. The facts, after all, haven’t changed one bit in the years since Mixon’s assault on Molitor: Stoops and members of OU’s administration saw the video — the argument, the punch, the blood, the terror of her friends, the casual departure of their star recruit — shortly after it first happened. What has changed, perhaps, is how much fans are willing to tolerate.

The NFL, long complicit by way of inaction when its players have hurt those around them, has lately become an ever so slightly less hospitable place for those accused or convicted of abuse. Greg Hardy is out of the league. Ray Rice is in exile. Tyreek Hill is thriving with Kansas City, but his successes come with an asterisk. Though accusations should carry every bit as much force absent visual proof, Mixon’s violence being caught on camera, as Rice’s was — being there to pull up on Google in seconds — makes it that much harder to ignore. How can you praise the running back’s footwork when you’ve seen the image of Molitor’s feet limp on the ground? How can you relish his strength when you’ve seen how he can use it, his speed when you’ve seen what he can flee from?

People make mistakes; people deserve second chances. I don’t know exactly where the line lies — what we can or should be able to look past — but I suspect someone who has framed the saga as evidence of his own maturity, whose defense was essentially that the woman whose face he brutalized started it, and whose legal plea maintained his innocence while acknowledging enough evidence existed for a jury to convict him, is firmly on one side of it. Molitor, for her part, wrote in a joint statement with Mixon announcing the settlement of her civil suit against the running back just last week that she was “satisfied that we are going to put this behind us,” though she has also spoken about the devastation she felt and continues to feel.

The Sooners didn’t view Mixon’s violence as unforgivable, at least at the time. He was suspended for the entirety of his freshman season — but in practice, all that meant was using his redshirt season. When he returned, he was permitted to go almost an entire season without addressing the media, choosing instead — and being allowed to choose — to merely be a football star.

In February, the NFL barred him from participating in the scouting combine under a new policy of holding back invitations from players with past convictions of “violence or use of a weapon, domestic violence, sexual offense and/or sexual assault.” And yet, a week after the combine, representatives from all 32 teams attended his pro day, and out came a triumphant round of praise: The next Zeke! Round-1 talent! That night in 2014 is already being folded up and slipped into a box, one marked “character concerns,” “off-field troubles,” or plain old baggage, a public-relations problem to overcome.

And yet. Seventeen days after the video of the Norman assault was made public, Mixon played in the Sugar Bowl as spectators in the stands chanted, “He hits women! He hits women!” But it’s worth asking: How long can they keep up the chorus when the sport’s decision-makers still mostly err on the side of talent?