Sorry, NFL: Exempting players with violent pasts from the grueling combine isn't a punishment
- Joe Mixon and Chad Kelly were barred from the NFL combine because of their checkered pasts. And as a result of that "punishment" from the league, two players who deserve to be questioned got to skip the most grueling week of the pre-draft process.
INDIANAPOLIS — Last Thursday afternoon, 33 running backs met the media at the NFL combine. Leonard Fournette was five pounds heavier than his playing weight at LSU. Dalvin Cook went on to disappoint in nearly every on-field drill. Christian McCaffrey defended his ability to be an every-down back at the next level. And Joe Mixon, the top-tier running back with the most questions surrounding his future, did nothing, because he wasn’t there. Mixon was denied an invitation after entering an Alford plea to a misdemeanor charge in 2014—he punched a fellow Oklahoma student, Amelia Molitor, and the incident was caught on video.
The next day, quarterback Chad Kelly found himself in the same position as the former Oklahoma running back: he was nothing more than a talking point. Kelly, who started at Ole Miss in 2015 and ’16, was barred from the NFL’s annual scouting event because he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after fighting with bouncers and threatening to produce a gun outside a club in Buffalo in 2014. (ESPN reported that Kelly was first invited and then had his invitation rescinded from the event.)
Both players’ absences from Indianapolis were in accordance with a rule the NFL announced last winter: Any player with a misdemeanor or felony conviction involving violence or use of a weapon, domestic violence, a sexual offense or sexual assault is barred from the event. At face value, the decision was a win for the league. Still reeling after years of criticism over the way it handled—or ignored—violence against women perpetrated by its players, the NFL seemed to be codifying a punishment. Last winter, no high-profile player was barred from the event, and the rule seemed like something to celebrate.
This year, it made me think.
What do Mixon and Kelly lose by not spending a few days running drills while wearing Under Armour gear in Indianapolis ? Very little. At the end of a tone-deaf soliloquy on the unfairness of the NFL’s rule, Lions general manager Bob Quinn admitted that the running back was still on his team’s draft board. I guarantee Detroit isn’t alone in that evaluation.
Mixon is one of the most skilled players at his position in this year’s draft, and though Oklahoma did not submit his name to the NFL’s college advisory committee for a draft grade, his agent told USA Today that several teams’ scouts had deemed him a first-round talent. If that’s true, teams who have graded him that highly be sure to find a way to investigate, spend time with and run medical evaluations on him between now and the draft. As for Kelly, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said point-blank in a conference call last week that he doesn’t think missing the combine will hurt the quarterback’s stock.
The logistics of scouting such players become more difficult when they aren’t eligible for the gantlet of evaluations that is the combine, but it’s certainly not prohibitive, as Quinn tried to suggest last Tuesday. “I think it is a disappointment that guys like [Mixon]—and there’s a few others you can put in that category—we’re going to be chasing around in the months of March and April,” the general manager said, “and it’s really unfair to the players.”
I’d planned to write on this subject before Quinn talked, and I think the rule that barred Mixon and Kelly is flawed, but not for any reason that even approximates Quinn’s. Fairness goes out the window once a draft prospect commits a crime. And this is the NFL; teams who want to scout one of these players have the resources to do so. They’ll get to Norman and Oxford for pro days, to every rock they want to overturn regarding these players.
What the NFL’s rule really does is gives these guys and the league an out. It hides them and gets them out of the most stressful days of the pre-draft process. Players—especially presumptive high draft picks with serious interest from multiple teams—barely get a wink of sleep. They have to be on for 20 hours a day, and they have to face a gaggle of media prying into their lives and doctors prodding at their every extremity. Look no further than the case of Reuben Foster, the former Alabama linebacker who was sent home after an altercation with a hospital worker, for evidence that every minute of the combine can impact a career.
Oklahoma hid Mixon for a year. We all saw how that worked out. The NFL shouldn’t be able to hide these players. The rule was a brief PR boost for the league and a means by which it can vaguely disassociate itself from the issues that it’s recently struggled to address. This is a half-hearted punishment; it’s a time-out in front of a television.
“I imagine he just takes it with a grain of salt and works harder,” former Sooner running back Samaje Perine said Thursday of Mixon. Perine didn’t specify what that grain of salt might be, but if I’m Mixon, it’s that the lack of an invite had nothing to do with dissuading a team to call his name this spring.
On Saturday, at a table surrounded by just five reporters, Louisville’s Devonte Fields faced questions about his own past. Fields, despite having punched a woman during his tenure at TCU, was invited to Indianapolis; his misdemeanor assault charge was dismissed after he finished anger-management courses in 2015. Essentially, Fields got an invitation to the combine because there was no video of his arrest, because he had better lawyers. The crowd around him was smaller than it would have been had he played in 2016 like he had the season before, smaller still than if he’d never been dismissed from TCU. But there he was in Indianapolis, stating his case as a draft pick—and explaining his past. He clarified that there had been no gun at the scene of the assault, a fact that was reported and recanted shortly thereafter. Teams had asked him about the gun, too, he said. They’d asked him about everything.
“I don’t have a standard answer [for teams], but it’s a lesson learned,” he said. “I was young and dumb at the time. I’ve moved on, grown up and matured.”
I spent a day with Fields in September. He seems to have reformed, and the incident was, so far, a one-off. His family, friends and coaches say he’s a different person than he was three years ago, and there’s been no reason not to believe them. The combine should be a boost for him, just as it could have been for Mixon or Kelly, just as easily as it could have been a detriment. Put these players under the microscope. See how they perform both on the field for drills and off of it, in the hallways of Indianapolis’s convention center, in hospital exam rooms, in overwhelming meetings with general managers. See how they handle 3:30 a.m. alarm clocks. Make them talk to strangers who want to pick at the most painful pieces of their worst moments and find the roots of their demons.
A checkered past somehow means exemption from the most grueling week of the pre-draft process. So no, this isn’t unfair to teams or to the likes of Mixon and Kelly. It’s unfair to the 330 other players.