Joe Mixon is a popular guy these days.
Not necessarily for good reasons, but not all for bad ones either.
The embattled phenom running back from Oklahoma is just a month away from Judgment Day, when NFL teams will weigh their need for a powerful playmaker against the PR thunderstorm that will inevitably rain down after signing a guy who hit a young woman at a sandwich shop a few years ago and broke her jaw.
The story is, of course, more complicated than that, but that’s the way it will play out in the headlines and among the comments.
But because the story is more complicated, it begs us not to prejudge one way or the other based on our personal bias but rather consider the situation as a whole – and maybe even its larger lessons in our sport and society.
Yes, that’s a tall order on a football blog where we are much more comfortable arguing one quarterback over another for the 100th time. But that’s the thing – sometimes we’re forced to consider more than football.
The typical reaction to any “off-the-field issue” is a hard line defense of our own preconceived biases – “he hit a woman, lock him up” “she provoked him; she bears some blame” – because it’s easier than considering a different point of view.
The problem is – it IS complicated. I’m adamantly opposed to all bad and irresponsible behavior by humanity, football players or not. Sexual assault, domestic violence, assault, murder, DUI, not sharing your toys with your brother – all inexcusable (trust me on the last one…it too leads to bad things).
But Mixon’s story actually plays out a dozen times every season – all with different circumstances and different personalities – but still one the league needs to address pragmatically and consistently. Whether we like it or not, the NFL is a major player in our culture and it needs to be a leader in that arena.
If you’ve made up your mind on Mixon, stop reading. I have nothing for you.
But if you want to wrestle with some complicated issues here, then stick with me and we’ll work this out together.
Teams seem to be interested in drafting Joe Mixon, but most likely not in the first round pic.twitter.com/iaxbsHKEiA— Bleacher Report NFL (@BR_NFL) March 29, 2017
First, the football stuff
This is a football blog after all, so let’s talk about that first.
Mixon is not just an obvious college talent, he’s a likely Week 1 starter on a number of NFL teams, perhaps becoming the same kind of game-changer that Ezekiel Elliott was last year as a rookie running back for the Cowboys.
Considered the No. 1 running back in the nation coming out of high school by Rivals.com, the three-year starter at Freedom High School in California had offers from 48 schools. He committed to the University of Oklahoma in January 2014, but the July altercation resulted in a suspension that kept him from playing until 2015.
In his two seasons as a Sooner, Mixon rushed for 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns, averaging 6.8 yards per carry. He also pulled down 65 receptions for 894 yards and another nine touchdowns.
Nearly 3,000 yards and a couple dozen touchdowns is why Mixon remains on the draft boards of a number of teams – including the Broncos.
Though he is unlikely to go in the first round now, Mixon will not be without an NFL home. He was not invited to the Combine per an NFL rule, but he spoke with 24 teams during Oklahoma's pro day and has met privately with several, including the Broncos because teams know the former Sooner is first-round talent.
If the Broncos don’t get a chance to take Christian McCaffrey in the first round, they may be tempted to take a chance on Mixon in a later round because it’s no secret Denver needs some better weapons in the running game.
Joe Mixon scored a TD within his first 2 touches from scrimmage in 6 games since 2015 pic.twitter.com/cOCRg0maFo— Mark Dulgerian (@MarkDulgerianOS) March 31, 2017
About that “incident”
It’s easy to look at the video of Mixon hitting Amelia Molitar and make a clear judgment. Fair warning if you click on the link to watch - it’s an ugly scene. Molitar clearly provokes Mixon and even shoves him first, but there’s no way a strong athletic young man doesn’t do major damage to anyone, much less a young woman, if he fights back.
He should know better. He is to blame no matter “who started it.”
The events that led to that scene are a little murky, and though they don’t necessarily matter given the end result, it’s the kind of information that helps teams understand what character exists beneath the obvious loss of control.
Molitar told Norman, Okla., police that Mixon made unwanted sexual advances that she turned down, angering the about-to-be freshman out celebrating his 18th birthday.
Mixon’s attorney has said the young running back did not verbally harass Molitar as she claims, adding that the young woman admitted her memories of the night were “hazy and scattered. Eyewitnesses report that Ms. Molitar was beligerent and apparently inebriated.”
Between the police interviews of the two and their friends, there is a lot of “he said, she said” that cannot be fully corroborated, but it’s the video that’s rightfully the most damning.
Mixon was charged with a misdemeanor assault charge and reached a plea deal with prosecutors to avoid jail time. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops suspended Mixon for the entire 2014 season, but the California native bounced back strong his sophomore year and again last season where he rushed for a team-high 1,274 yards while also catching 37 passes for 538 yards.
Since his suspended year off, Mixon mostly stayed out of trouble.
He violated the team suspension by appearing at football pep rally in September 2014, and then last October he had an incident with a female parking attendant at OU. He didn’t agree with her giving him a ticket for parking in a space he says he was allowed to do, but instead of fighting it on appeal, he ripped up the ticket and threw it toward her face. No one was hurt, but it’s definitely harder for a team to argue Mixon has full control of his emotions now.
In a conversation with Albert Breer for MMQB, Mixon said “correct” when Breer asked the running back if he had an “oh crap” moment after that incident.
Mixon and his coaches like to point out that he hadn’t gotten into trouble before that July 2014 incident and hasn’t had any real trouble since (outside of the parking attendant run-in).
“You can’t judge someone on a mistake they made. I’m sure you’ve made mistakes, I’m sure everyone’s made mistakes. It’s what you do after and what you learn from it. It’s not like it’s been a string of things after that incident. It was a one-time thing. I made a bad decision, I made a bad mistake,” Mixon told Breer last month. “If I could take it back, I would. I can’t. So I have to keep moving forward, doing the right things. I can’t keep worrying about something that happened three years ago.”
So how should NFL teams respond?
Mixon is far from the only troubled young football star to pose a dilemma for NFL teams – and their fans.
Chad Kelly and Ishmael Zamora join Mixon this year as Draft Day casualties whose NFL standing will be rightfully be affected – if not denied – because of past indiscretions. Zamora for animal cruelty and Kelly for numerous incidents of erratic behavior in high school and college.
But there have been plenty more before them. And sadly, there will be too many more after them.
The question for teams will be “can this player become a Tyreek Hill and overcome past incidents to be a good player and good citizen, or will he turn out like a Greg Hardy who is a distraction because of off-field problems?”
To answer that question look no further than the Kansas City Chiefs coach who took that chance on Hill – Andy Reid.
Back in December 2014, Hill committed domestic assault and battery by strangulation to his pregnant girlfriend, a felony charge to which he pleaded guilty in August 2015. Hill was kicked off his Oklahoma State squad after the incident and then thrived at West Alabama before showing incredible speed skill at his pro day and landing a last-day draft pick by the Chiefs.
Reid and his franchise were criticized for the move, but the coach noted a year later that his advice to teams looking at Mixon (and other scrutinized players) is to “do your homework.”
“This country gives you a second chance, if you handle yourself the right way," Reid told reporters during the NFL owners meeting last week. Hill, who had to undergo anger management classes and counseling among other things for his three-year probation, had a remarkable rookie season that included a Pro Bowl nod, three AFC player of the week awards and a host of game-winning plays.
"There’s no room for errors for some of these situations,” Reid added. “So, you have to do your homework, and make sure the kid is focused in on making sure he does the right thing. You’re getting your second chance. There’s not normally another chance after the first chance there.”
Broncos’ coach Vance Joseph – who has dealt with his own checkered past – said last week that he thinks Mixon is a good kid who “has owned” his issues.
“We brought Joe in because he didn’t go to the combine,” Joseph said. “We brought him in, we talked to him for a day. He’s owned it, he’s been remorseful for his mistake, and he’s a nice young man.”
So what do NFL teams do now?
Reid’s advice is excellent – teams need to do their homework to understand the kid, both as a player and a person before “taking that chance.”
And I do support teams taking a chance.
I do not approve of the “everyone makes mistakes” philosophy when looking at these situations because hitting a girl and breaking her jaw or torturing animals or strangling a pregnant girlfriend or [insert awful abuse here] are not just “mistakes.”
They are major personality disorders that come from something dark and need to be addressed with professional help.
At the same time, a past incident that has been handled in the courts and addressed through appropriate services, shouldn’t prevent someone from moving forward and proving themselves a changed person. Preferential treatment or “ignoring the past” shouldn’t be applied because of athletic prowess but neither should paying for the sin over and over be required.
The Tyreek Hill experiment at the Chiefs appears to have worked, and although many Broncos fans want to condemn him for a heinous act, I daresay some of the anger is due to Hill almost single-handedly torching Denver with three touchdowns in a 30-27 overtime win last season.
By all accounts, a year since his controversial draft, Hill has lived up to his promises to become a better person. Reid said last November that the Chiefs’ standout rookie was doing “all the things he’s supposed to do” and has “handled himself in a good way.”
Hill himself said he makes sure he goes to his mandated counseling and anger-management classes because he wants to “be a better person.”
"I'm real dedicated,” he said. “I'm going to stick to it so I can be a better man and a better citizen for this community and a better father to my son."
Who among us wouldn’t prefer to have football provide the rules, the accountability, the consequences that help young men change and become productive husbands and fathers and teammates and friends?
Obviously not every troubled high school player will get it together in college sports, despite the scholarship, the degree and maybe the chance to play at the next level. And not every troubled college player will recognize the potential gift he has with an NFL team.
Some will, however. And for those, the league owes them the chance to thrive.
A monitored chance, that is.
Regardless of or in conjunction with any court-ordered actions, the NFL should design a protocol for domestic abuse issues just like it does for PEDs and DUIs.
Rookies coming in with problems should have mandatory counseling and anger-management classes for at least a year. A portion of their paycheck should be donated to domestic abuse programs, and there should be a “no strikes and you’re out” punishment for future incidences (for the record, I advocate a similar consistent and tough punishment for other criminal violations among players, too – but all of that is part of a much larger discussion).
A similar adaptation should apply to current players convicted of domestic abuse as well (or even accused with overwhelming evidence available, such as a video account), including mandatory suspension plus counseling and paycheck donation for a first-time offense, banned from the NFL for any more.
The NFL may think its only job is to coach guys to be good football players, but given how it exploits their talent and this sport as a major influencer in American culture, it needs to also take some responsibility for these guys and do what it can to help. Tough consequences but professional help for major issues like domestic abuse would be a good place to start.
Can Mixon be a Bronco?
By the indications out there so far, Mixon seems to be doing the right things to own his problems and be a better man.
Whether he genuinely wants to work toward that is something only in-depth interviews and time will tell - so I like that the Broncos and others are taking time to find out.
If the Broncos truly believe the running back would be an asset to the team (no question there) as well as a contributing member of society and a positive role model moving forward, I would hate to see them turn him away just because of a PR nightmare.
The right “PR thing” for any NFL team believing in the young running back would be to draft Mixon and own up to his mistakes just the way he has.
And then promise to help him become not only the best player he can be, but also the best man.
If Joe Mixon is available, and the Broncos haven’t been able to get a certain Stanford RB, would you be OK with Broncos drafting Mixon?
This poll is closed
Yes, of course. If the Broncos believe in him, so do I.
No way. Let him go somewhere else.