Like it or not, Joe Mixon is in the NFL. So now what?
The talented Oklahoma running back who is known for punching a female student in the face three years ago was drafted Friday by the Cincinnati Bengals, and no 2017 draft pick enters the league under more intense scrutiny or controversy. Reactions will be fierce in plenty of places, including Cincinnati. He knows that. He knows it's his fault.
"I take full responsibility," Mixon told ESPN in an interview at his pro day in March. "At the end of the day, I can't take it back. And there's nothing I can do from here on besides learn from what happened."
No one can go back into the past and undo what Mixon did. It's there, and it will follow him for the rest of his life. It has cost him millions of dollars, dropping him from first-round draft pick to a second-round draft pick, and it obviously cost him the benefit of any public doubt. If you want to howl outrage that someone who did what he did gets to play in the NFL, you're within your rights. If you're a fan of the Bengals and you don't want to cheer for him, no one's going to sit here and tell you you're wrong.
But the fact is, Mixon is now in the NFL, and will be carrying the ball for the Bengals on Sundays, and it does matter what happens next. Focusing on the future doesn't excuse or erase the past, but a big part of this story is its remainder.
One of the reasons Mixon's first-round talent didn't land him in the first round is that teams had to wonder whether he'd ever do anything like this again. He of course says it won't, but how can he or anyone else know? NFL teams that evaluated Mixon had to evaluate many things, including their own comfort level with his videotaped 2014 punch of Amelia Molitor, the likely reaction of their fan base in light of that event and its accompanying video, and the risk he presented as a potential repeat offender. If Mixon does anything like this again, he'd obviously face a significant suspension given his history.
Mixon will certainly face situations in the future that might cause him to lose his temper. In fact, there's a strong case to be made that people -- opponents and otherwise -- will look for ways to try to make that happen. It's already happened.
"I mean, I have issues where people still call me names, and at the end of the day I look and just walk the other way," Mixon said. "That's just another way of handling the situation. Just like how I could have handled the situation of that night in 2014. I mean, basically, just learning."
It's important to note the difference between Mixon's issue and those that have followed players such as Seattle's Frank Clark and Kansas City's Tyreek Hill into the league in recent years. Mixon's is not a case of domestic violence, as Clark's and Hill's were. Mixon was not in a relationship with Amelia Molitor. What he did was assault -- violent, ugly, inexcusable assault driven by a loss of temper.
Please don't mistake this distinction for a value judgment. The comparison is not meant to excuse Mixon in any way. Just to frame his case in terms that help identify what needs to be done about it.
Mixon's learning process has included anger management counseling, which he plans to continue during his NFL career. The NFL and the NFLPA both offer avenues for this. The league has a player engagement director for each team that's been trained to handle a variety of issues and is in contact with the league office on specific players that need specific help. The league also has a social responsibility team, headed by former Dolphins linebacker Dwight Hollier, to help provide off-field support. The Kansas City Chiefs put a structure in place last year for fifth-round pick Hill, who was arrested for domestic violence while in college, and the Bengals could look to follow Kansas City's template for Mixon.
The NFLPA has a "player director" visit each team from the time of the draft through training camp specifically to meet with the rookies. They go over all sorts of orientation aspects, from the drug program to financial literacy to counseling resources. They provide players with a hotline number they can call at any hour that's guaranteed to have a live person pick up and either assist with or get the player in touch with help they need on anything from suicide prevention to drugs to domestic violence issues.
If Mixon feels he needs help managing his anger, that help will be there for him. If you're looking for a reason to be encouraged, he definitely seems to have drawn some concrete techniques from the anger management counseling he's had so far.
"I mean, anybody knows, like, if you're getting into an altercation, you know when like your heart starts beating fast or you start getting amped up or your blood pressure's rising, you just feel that type of stuff, and I've just been trying to work on it," Mixon said. "Basically, like, if somJoeone were to say a bad thing, basically look at them, turn around and walk the other way. That's a thing we practice in anger management or counseling. We do that. Obviously, you don't want to be in a bad situation ever. And if you are, you've got to find a way out of it."
Big picture, that's what Mixon has been trying to do for the past several months. His goal throughout the pre-draft process, he says, was to let teams get to know who he really is and convince them he's not the guy in the video. Or the guy who tore up a parking ticket and threw it at an attendant last November. He's working on trying to be better. If that's not enough to make you forgive him for what he did in 2014, that's totally understandable and he gets it.
"It's always going to be there," he said, "and I've got to live with it."
But there's something worth watching about how he lives with it from here out. There's a conversation worth having, amid the justified angst over another violent athlete getting a chance many think he shouldn't get, about what "anger management" is and the ways in which it can be applied effectively to change behavior and prevent future violence. If you're looking for something about this Joe Mixon story that's worth following, try that. See if he's a guy who means what he says about working on his issues, and see how he does. Maybe there's a decent example of something that can come out of this after all.