Ray Rice had to fall and Tyreek Hill had to succeed in order for Joe Mixon to be here right now, selected by the Bengals No. 48 overall in the 2017 NFL draft.
Consider the line graph on our (in)tolerance for violence against women when it comes to professional football players. Striking his then-fiancé in the face wasn’t enough for the NFL to suspend Ray Rice indefinitely—the video of the incident had to be shown to the world. The talented but aging running back could do—and has done—everything in the aftermath of TMZ’s news break to take responsibility, ask for forgiveness and learn from his massive mistake to get back into the league. But he never could and never will.
That same year, a district court judge in Charlotte convicted Greg Hardy of beating his then-girlfriend and threatening to kill her. The Cowboys went on to sign Hardy before Deadspin published graphic photos of the victim’s injuries, and those photos—combined with Hardy’s issues in Dallas, including his refusal to keep his mouth closed and show up to work on time—led to his ouster from the league.
Then Hill came along—Kansas City drafted him in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL draft, and the running back went on to record 12 total touchdowns that season, proving himself to be a total steal in round five. In the aftermath of his domestic assault, Hill apologized, dealt with his punishment, became a first-team All Pro as a rookie and paved the way for Mixon.
It’s highly unlikely we’re discussing Mixon on the second day of the draft if not for Hill’s breakout season last year. For all of Mixon’s talents—he may be the second-best true running back in this class behind Leonard Fournette—there needed to be a precedent set before a team could move on Mixon in such a round, even one like Cincinnati that has tested the morality of this brutal game in recent years. Kansas City and Hill laid the roadmap: select him later in the draft, tell fans and citizens that you did your homework, see that the player is regretful and apologetic and then watch that player be a major factor in your playoff run.
Consider if Hill didn’t succeed last season and had an average, fifth-round-pick-type of year. It would be harder for a team to justify internally and externally bringing in a player with such a miserable red flag who ultimately didn’t contribute much on the field. But an All-Pro season or, in Mixon’s case, a potential 1,000-yard rushing season makes the move more palatable to a group of NFL execs whose jobs are contingent on winning and to a fan base just wanting to get a wild-card round victory.
None of this is to say Mixon should be barred from the NFL or should have been drafted lower. Like Hill, there has already been a measure of punishment handed down to Mixon by the law, the University of Oklahoma (however bogus), the slotted NFL rookie salary slate and his own conscience. Life shouldn’t end at 18 years old, and he should be offered a chance at rehabilitation.
A week ago, Mixon released a statement with the victim, Amelia Molitor, as part of an undisclosed settlement that was reached—conveniently for Mixon—before the draft. The statement from both parties moving on with their lives, that if they both had a chance to go back in time “the situation would not have ended the way it did,” was the final step in Mixon’s journey to being taken in the second round by the Bengals.
The NFL and its member clubs took a hard stance against Ray Rice three years ago, but three years is a long time ago and Rice was an old running back. That type of stance has clearly softened, because Mixon can help a team right now.