DESTIN, Fla. — One game against South Alabama.
That’s the suspension Mississippi State announced for incoming freshman defensive end Jeffery Simmons, who was caught on tape punching a woman as she lay on the ground in March. Unless an evaluation reveals warning signs that inspire Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin to lengthen the suspension, the Bulldogs’ top-ranked incoming recruit basically will serve the same penalty as a player flagged for targeting in a game.
“That’s an interesting way to put it,” Stricklin said Wednesday, “and that’s not how we compared it.”
But that is the message Stricklin sent Mississippi State’s athletes when he settled on one game. A man punching a woman is the same as a targeting foul or a first positive marijuana test. No big deal. We’ve crushed Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, athletic director Joe Castiglione and president David Boren because they suspended tailback Joe Mixon for one season after Mixon punched a woman during an altercation at an off-campus restaurant. The Sooners’ leadership looks downright stern compared to that of the Bulldogs, whose players were given little incentive to believe the administration takes violence against women all that seriously.
The Mixon case is probably the closest comparison to the Simmons case. Neither of the women were family members or romantic partners. In both cases, the players hadn’t participated in their first practice. Mixon was enrolled in summer school at Oklahoma. Simmons had signed but had yet to arrive on campus. His incident took place in Macon, Miss.
Both incidents were caught on video, but while the court in Norman went to great lengths to protect Mixon—the video still hasn’t been released, even though the Oklahoma Supreme Court has ruled it a public record—the Simmons video went viral almost immediately.
Here it is. Watch for yourself.
The combatant the 6' 4", 251-pound Simmons didn’t punch is Simmons’s sister. As you can see from the video, Simmons tries to break up the fight before throwing any punches. Had he walked away or waited for help after separating the women, he’d face no scrutiny. But he chose to punch the woman as she lay on the ground. That is why his status was in question. Like Mixon, he had announced himself as a man who would punch a woman. Unlike Mixon, Simmons apologized immediately.
Simmons is facing charges of simple assault and disturbing the peace. According to Stricklin, this is the only violent incident on Simmons’s record—criminal, scholastic or otherwise. “We wanted to make sure that we weren’t making our campus unsafe, that we weren’t introducing something on our campus that was going to create an issue,” Stricklin said. “That’s why we spent a lot of time in his hometown talking to a lot of people.”
To Stricklin’s credit, he took every question Wednesday and provided every answer he could give. After the group of reporters dispersed, he remained and answered individual questions. Most athletic directors would have hidden behind an emailed statement. Stricklin did not. But he should have to answer those questions, because Stricklin understands he is gambling. If all goes well, Simmons will stay out of trouble, graduate and give Stricklin a big hug after he walks across the stage. If this isn’t an isolated incident and Simmons harms anyone—male or female—on Mississippi State’s campus, Stricklin knows he has left the school open to a lawsuit it would almost certainly have to settle. “That was thought of. Yes,” Stricklin said. “And that’s why the counseling will be a piece of this.”
Stricklin’s other choice was to take a stand and tell everyone on campus that men punching women is unacceptable. He could have decided Simmons wasn’t welcome. Stricklin said he didn’t want to do that because he didn’t believe five seconds of an 18-year-old’s life should preclude him from attending the college he chose.
Stricklin also said he didn’t want to punish Simmons more harshly because during his tenure, the Bulldogs had never punished an athlete for an incident that happened before he arrived on campus. “I wasn’t comfortable doing that because he wasn’t a student,” Stricklin said. “He wasn’t necessarily in our program with the structure, discipline and expectations.” But Stricklin could have sent a stronger message to Simmons and to the other athletes in Starkville. Instead, he chose one game.
Would it have been easier to take a stand if Simmons was a two-star recruit? “I can’t answer that,” Stricklin said. (Scout.com rated Simmons the No. 10 prospect in the country and a five-star.)
I can, but it’s not a simple answer. Having discussed the Mixon decision with people at Oklahoma, the trickiest part in both cases is that kicking the player off the team would have resulted in another school snapping him up and allowing him to play immediately. Then he would face essentially no punishment at all. Sooners officials settled on a one-year suspension and a ban from all team activities and privileges. Their attitude was, at least he had to deal with that. A quick recruiting frenzy would have happened had Mississippi State cut Simmons loose.
Still, one game?
It would be better if athletic directors and football coaches didn’t have to make these decisions. If men actually went to jail for punching women*, suspension lengths wouldn’t be a concern. If men worried their freedom might be taken away, maybe they wouldn’t swing. But it takes a few times getting caught before jail time becomes an issue, so instead we must rely on coaches and ADs to make these decisions.
*Yes, I view a man punching a woman as a completely different offense than a man punching a man. I realize the courts probably can’t make that distinction in non-domestic cases. I also realize it makes me some sort of neo-chauvinist. I don’t care. My parents raised me to believe that men don’t punch women. Period.
At a certain point, school officials must decide and declare what kind of behavior they deem unacceptable. The one-game suspension Mississippi State announced Wednesday shows how much the Bulldogs actually care about this issue. “It sends a message that there is going to be a consequence,” Stricklin said.
It sends a message all right. Don’t punch women, because you might miss the South Alabama game.