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April 28, 2017

Selection of Joe Mixon by the Bengals sends mixed message

NFL rewards player who assaulted woman in 2014

Three summers ago, Joe Mixon struck a woman with such force that she fell to the ground, her face fracturing in four places.

On Friday, Mixon heard his named called at the 2017 NFL Draft. The Bengals selected him in the second round with the 48th overall pick.

Mixon's assault of Amelia Molitor cost him the honor of being selected at a level more commensurate to his tremendous football abilities. It likely cost him millions of dollars in guaranteed money. But it did not prevent him from receiving an opportunity to play in the National Football League.

"Most people who have physically assaulted a woman and broken the bones in her face — it would have been a much different outcome," said Diane Cornman-Levy, executive director of Women's Way, a Philadelphia-based organization that fights for women's safety, economic equity and reproductive rights.

"But we see this over and over again with professional athletes. When it comes to money and power in the United States, this is what dictates so many things. That's a power dynamic that we really have to address."

The selection of Mixon, who led Oklahoma to the Sugar Bowl, caused considerable consternation throughout the NFL. From a talent standpoint, the running back promises significant upside. But what message does a team send by picking a player guilty of an assault easily viewed online?

To Cornman-Levy, it's not a good one.

"Violence to women is something they're obviously not in favor of, but they're not speaking against it," Cornman-Levy said. "If you're really against those who inflict harm on women, you should have pretty significant consequences."

Cornman-Levy isn't sure whether the NFL should institute a zero-tolerance policy for incidents of violence. But she suggests a severe penalty for first-time offenders and a ban for repeat offenders would go a long way.

Yet, the NFL also needs to better support victims of violence by offering them a voice, Cornman-Levy said. And it needs to make the locker room a safer environment for players to speak instances where they may have been abused or hurt.

"We need to start having the hard conversations with these institutions and begin saying this is not acceptable," Cornman-Levy said. "There must be more dire consequences when someone inflicts harm on a woman. But how do we help men and boys become more responsible and deal with their issues of anger?"


The assault occurred at Pickleman's Cafe in Norman, Oklahoma, on July 25, 2014 — one day after Mixon had turned 18.

Mixon, now 20, was inside the nightspot for less than 30 seconds. But it was long enough to drastically alter the life of Molitor, a complete stranger.

Surveillance video, released in December, shows Mixon followed Molitor and her friend into Pickleman's Cafe shortly after a dispute outside the eatery.

The video shows Molitor pushed Mixon, who then lunged toward Molitor with a closed fist by his side. She then slapped at him before he responded with a quick blow to her head. Molitor's head crashed against a table as she fell to the ground.

Molitor told police the physical altercation began when Mixon directed an anti-gay slur toward her friend. Mixon conceded he used the slur but said it came in response to being called a racial slur by Molitor's friend.

"I thought that every single person who looked at me knew me and hated me." — Amelia Molitor

Mixon pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge and was sentenced to one year of probation, mandatory community service and counseling. The University of Oklahoma suspended him for the 2014 season.

Molitor, who did not know Mixon prior to the incident, suffered four fractures to her face. Not only did she need her jaw wired shut, but Molitor said she suffered the indignity of having her name dragged across social media.

Mixon went on to play two seasons at Oklahoma, scoring 28 touchdowns and totaling 2,027 rushing yards and 894 receiving yards. He helped the Sooners defeat Auburn in the 2017 Sugar Bowl, his final collegiate game.

Now, he's bringing his game to the NFL.


Do the consequences fit the crime?

People can debate that topic for hours, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. 

But Kramer, a former defense attorney, finds arguing about Mixon's retribution less pressing than two other components of the criminal justice system — restitution and rehabilitation.

It is important for Mixon and the NFL to support Molitor's needs and provide her a voice if she desires to speak out, Kramer said. Too often, Kramer said, victims of high-profile perpetrators quickly become an afterthought.

"Victims really matter," Kramer said. "Just because she didn't get to speak early on, her thoughts certainly play a role. I think we could all learn a lot from her about what it's like to be on the receiving end of violence perpetrated by a man."

Upon graduating from Oklahoma in December, Molitor spoke with The Oklahoman, describing the anxiety and isolation she felt as the assault drew public attention. She said she was harassed online, where her mugshot from an unrelated arrest became public fodder, and heard snickers as she walked on campus.

"I thought that every single person who looked at me knew me and hated me," Molitor told the newspaper.

Mixon apologized for his actions during a news conference in December, shortly after his lawyers released video of the assault to the press. He said took "full responsibility" for his actions, saying "it's never OK to hit a woman," even if provoked.

Earlier this month, Molitor and Mixon reached a settlement agreement to a civil lawsuit brought by Molitor. Terms were not disclosed, but Molitor said the pair had an opportunity to meet in private.

"From our private discussions I am satisfied that we are going to put this behind us and work towards helping others who may have found themselves in similar circumstances," Molitor said. "I greatly appreciate his apology and I think the feelings he expressed were sincere."

As an advocate of rehabilitation, Kramer said it is important that Mixon be given an opportunity to show that he has accepted his punishment and is committed to living an upstanding life.

"He very clearly has taken ownership, which I think is a very positive thing," Kramer said. "We have to take that at face value. It is what it is. He's on record. He's said and done all of that."

Yet, Kramer said she would be dismayed to see Mixon use any excuses moving forward or potentially earn a profit for speaking out against violence. And she doesn't view him as someone who should be given an abundance of second chances.

"I would say to the NFL, there has to be zero tolerance moving forward," Kramer said. "There's a decision that 'OK, he made a mistake; he's paid his price.' Great. One misstep and he's out would be my thought. Because everybody perhaps gets one (second) chance, but there's a limit to that."


Three years ago, the NFL revamped its personal conduct policy after Ray Rice was arrested and indicted for aggravated assault against his now-wife, Janay.

Rice, then a running back for the Baltimore Ravens, initially was handed a two-game penalty. But when TMZ released video of the assault, the Ravens released him and the NFL moved to suspend him indefinitely.

Eventually, the NFL adopted a six-game "baseline" penalty for players in a domestic violence incident. No team ever signed Rice, effectively ending his NFL career.

On the surface, Mixon's case appears similar to the assault involving Rice, mostly because surveillance videos captured both incidents. But Mixon's case does not classify as a domestic incident because he and Molitor had no prior relationship.

That's an important distinction, columnist Adrienne Lawrence wrote last month, because it otherwise implies domestic violence only impacts women.

"Its victims include men, children, boyfriends, girlfriends and partners," Lawrence wrote. "Any individual can suffer abuse at the hands of a loved one, receiving scars that are lasting and harmful to future relationships."

Yet, Mixon's actions still were criminal, violent and disturbing. And they caused many NFL teams to take pause.

"Depending on what kind of offender a person is, what their background is prior to this offense, some won't do it again." — Richard Gelles, Penn professor

As a federation, the NFL cannot direct teams to select — or not pick — any given player. But the league has worked to provide teams with data that will help teams evaluate the risk factor a player holds.

Richard Gelles, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, helped the NFL add questions to its psychological tests following the Ray Rice incident. Those evaluations determine the probability that a player will repeatedly offend and inflict harm.

Selecting a player like Mixon will bring a public relations nightmare, Gelles said. But it may be wiser than choosing another player who has a higher risk for repeated offenses, even if that player presently has a clear record.

"Depending on what kind of offender a person is, what their background is prior to this offense, some won't do it again," Gelles said. "There are other offenders who, for various reasons, psychological and social, aren't deterred by being publically identified, publicly shamed or publically sanctioned."

The best example of that latter group, Gelles said, is Johnny Manziel, a former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who lasted just two seasons in the NFL due to persistent off-the-field issues.

"That last group is relatively small," Gelles said. "It's not a particularly big population, but it's a dangerous population."

Domestic incidents naturally grab headlines, but Gelles said peer-on-peer violence is a considerable threat, too. But he said there is so little of that because NFL players generally recognize how easily they can be cut — and how much they stand to lose.

A similar deterrent can be established regarding violence toward women, Gelles said, with the videos of Mixon and Rice serving as important deterrents.

"And to go full circle, if you're not deterred when it becomes public, then you're a threat to society and a threat to professional football," Gelles said. "That's when you need to be separated from at least the NFL, if not the population."