NEW ORLEANS — There are massive new video boards in either end zone of the Superdome, each of them 330 feet long by 35 feet tall.
Near the end of the second quarter of Monday night’s Sugar Bowl, Oklahoma scored its second touchdown of the night on a three-yard run. Soon thereafter, those video boards showed the player who’d scored said touchdown waving his arms and facing Auburn’s sideline as if to taunt—or encourage—the opposing crowd.
Normal, you think. It’s a big game, and it was a close one at that point, 14–10 in the Sooners’ favor.
Not normal, because the player was Joe Mixon, and the crowd he seemed to be encouraging (he denies it, but more on that later) was one of Auburn fans yelling three words: “He hits women.”
The Oklahoma faction did its damnedest to drown out the refrain, but it remained audible, and it came in waves, and that’s where we are: a player with a checkered past turning to a crowd that bellowed his greatest sin, all blown up to a 330-foot figure looming in the rafters of an echoing dome.
The game itself was entertaining, if not a bit one-sided once Auburn quarterback Sean White left with a broken arm in the second quarter after playing with it for three offensive series. Mixon scored his second touchdown of the day in the third quarter, putting Oklahoma up 28–13, and it might as well have been over then. The Sooners scored again on a Samaje Perine run, and Auburn scored in garbage time, finishing off the affair at 35–19. Baker Mayfield was the MVP, Perine broke the all-time Oklahoma rushing record, and Mixon played well, finishing with 180 total yards and two touchdowns.
I didn’t want to write about Mixon on Monday night. I don’t see much value in piling on or repeating the sentiments of other writers who are more familiar with the Oklahoma program and administration, Mixon and coach Bob Stoops. Because when it comes to Mixon’s actions, there’s only so much we can say. What he did was wrong. How Oklahoma handled it was wrong. Opinions differ on whether he deserves a second chance (I happen to think he, and most people, do), but really, if you’re a sane, compassionate person, that’s it. That’s where the debate ends. Monday night was Mixon’s first game since the release of the video of his assault of Amelia Molitor, and it was less about what he did than it was about how we, as sports writers and sports fans and broadcasters and humans, talk about and regard him and other public figures who commit crimes like his.
In the first half of the Sugar Bowl, ESPN’s Brent Musburger embarked on a bumbling broadcast booth thought experiment about Mixon. He called the punch “troubling,” an adjective the (relative lack of) severity of which would be better applied to his own words than Mixon’s actions, before wishing the running back luck in the NFL. In and of itself, the soliloquy was tone deaf, not to mention what Musburger didn’t say. He uttered not a word about Molitor, and it would have been so easy. He could have wished her well in her recovery, or acknowledged that the video of the punch, released in December, seemed to show both students’ anger issues. At the least he could have expressed hope that both had dealt with that anger and would move on healed from that night. But not a word.
Later in the game, Musburger offered a sort of apology for his earlier statement. He stood by his well-wishes to Mixon but doubled down on the condemnation of his crime. Did it help? It’s hard to say. The broadcaster seemed out of his element and unsure of what he should say to smooth the whole thing over. But this shouldn’t be about smoothing over or finding the right words. It should be about wishing Mixon got the help he needed, not wishing for him to make millions of dollars as a professional football player. It should be about telling the truth and acknowledging that he did something terrible.
But the truth didn’t quite reign supreme Monday. In the locker room after the game, Mixon was, to his credit, immediately available. He was jovial after the win, telling reporters that he hadn’t yet made a decision about the NFL. But it didn’t take long for a question about the jeers and his response. He was asked, and asked again, and asked some more, and his answer was scripted.
First: “I wasn’t reacting. No way. Our fans were supporting us, and I was turning up when our fans were. I’m here to talk about my teammates.”
Then: “I’m here, honestly, to talk about my teammates. Like I said, they did a great job, and we’re here to enjoy this win.”
And then: “Like I said, I wasn’t reacting. I saw the crowd, and like I said, our fans was juiced up, and I was doing whatever I could for our fans to be in the game.”
And then, finally, when asked point blank about the direction of his stare toward the Auburn sideline: “Next question.”
Mixon has to do better than that. He has to understand that millions of people were watching as he waved his arms and looked at the opposing fans, that his actions looked a lot like a player using a crime he committed as a source of on-field motivation for his team.
But there’s no arguing he paid a price. He served his punishment, and it isn’t his doing that it was a lenient one. Mixon was there to celebrate a win and congratulate his teammates, no matter that he may not have handled the attention perfectly. It isn’t his fault that legions of Oklahoma fans type slurs on Twitter at anyone who might question the way the incident was handled. It isn’t his fault that Musburger and so many other people have no idea how to talk about what happened, that their brains aren’t programmed to consider the victim along with the more famous perpetrator or to speak plainly. Broken facial bones aren’t troublesome; they’re gruesome. Punching a woman—or another person, period—isn’t a competitive chant; it’s a crime.
Sometimes, I hate sports. I hate the blind loyalty with which some fans embrace their teams. It nags at me. Sports make rational people into raving lunatics, and often not the fun kind. Listening to Oklahoma fans roar at Mixon’s touchdowns and try to drown out the Auburn fans’ taunts invoked a certain disgust in me. And the taunts were almost as bad. We don’t have high horses anymore, not in a sport where abuse happens on nearly every team, and certainly in every season. All we have is the truth: that a man hit a woman, that he was sheltered and punished lightly, that now he is playing. Joe Mixon broke a woman’s jaw. Joe Mixon got a second chance. He doesn’t have to be a villain forever, but he’s certainly not a highlight-reel hero.