Joe Mixon is a likely third round pick hiding in a first round body. Or perhaps he’s a no round pick. What I mean is, Joe Mixon, the superstar running back from Oklahoma, would most likely be picked in the first round of next week’s NFL Draft. That is, if not for a video that was released in December of 2016 of Joe Mixon punching a female Oklahoma student in the face at an off-campus sandwich shop. Mixon had been suspended from the team for the 2014 season following the incident, in which he broke four bones in the woman’s face and was charged with a misdemeanor, but for the most part, it wasn’t until the video broke that he felt the wrath of the public and, now it seems, the NFL establishment. Teams are likely concerned either that this behavior will continue or, perhaps more cynically, might believe drafting someone with such incendiary video baggage might upset their fan base.
According to our recently released HBO Real Sports/Marist Poll done with the Center for Sports Communication, those NFL executives might be right. According to the poll, 87% of NFL fans say they oppose their favorite NFL team drafting a top college prospect with a history of physical violence against women. Compare that to the 75% of fans that oppose drafting a player with a history of using performance enhancing drugs and the mere 28% that don’t want their team to pick a player with a history of smoking pot. So, in order, it’s domestic abuse, PED’s, and marijuana in a distant third. Which means if you’re a team in search of a running game, you’re better off with a Ricky Williams than a Joe Mixon or a Ray Rice. As for the reference, Ricky Williams was a really, really good running back that smoked a lot of pot.
The poll has some expected variants – young people are more forgiving than older ones. Men are less concerned with all these behaviors than women – although in all fairness, it’s almost the same when it comes to domestic abuse. You could find relatively slight deviations around geography and race and income; but for the most part, public opinion is fairly consistent.
Now in cases like this, it’s hard to know the abstract from the actual. In other words, it’s one thing to say you’d rather your team not draft a convict. It’s another when there’s an actual convict, and he might help your beloved franchise go from cellar to c-suite. So while I do believe the intentions of surveyed fans, it would certainly be interesting to this in a more experimental setting, say, where fans passed on Joe Mixon for Joe Schmo. It’s also interesting that it took actual video to outrage fans and teams alike, which is pretty consistent with past events. So even though it was common knowledge that Joe Mixon had been arrested and suspended for breaking four bones in a woman’s face with his fist, it wasn’t until we saw it that people seemed to really care. Good thing we still have working sports journalists, who filed the legal request that actually forced Mixon’s hand. Otherwise, it would be gone with the ether.
But beyond that cynicism, I would say this. I know that a lot of sports fans care first and foremost about winning, following closely by caring about winning next year. This is historically the linear mindset of competitive sports fandom. But it seems many fans do care, and perhaps deeply, about things outside that framework. Or at the very least, they care about the perception of those actions, particularly when they involve domestic abuse. This data must weigh on the minds of people like league commissioner Roger Goodell, who’s struggled to find the appropriate penalty for off field incidents. Last year, he created policy that kept offenders like Mixon out of the NFL Combine, the meat market of future pros. Whether that’s far enough is up for debate. But at least from these results, the public can stomach swift justice for domestic abuse by athletes, even more than for actually cheating the game.
I suppose all of this is a positive sign. The alternative is that sports fans don’t care what these guys do, as long as they get it done on Sundays. But there is a slight hypocrisy about watching grown men beat themselves to oblivion each week and being fine with that, yet feigning moral outrage to clearly immoral and illegal violence off the field. And yes, I am very clear on the difference between domestic abuse and the game of football. But I’d also suggest that football fans consider the violence that happens on the field as well and realize this isn’t a game of tiddlywinks, but a dangerous pastime that we celebrate like it’s a national holiday. So I am 100% comfortable with banning athletes with a record of domestic abuse. But I’m also comfortable with trying to take some of the blood out of this sport on the field as well, for a whole bunch of reasons.
Joe Mixon may not have to worry about any of this pretty soon. Given his freefall in recent draft boards, his violent opportunities on the gridiron may be fading fast.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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