In a few days Joe Mixon will hear his name called, join his new NFL team, and smile as dozens of publicists set about selling the story of how football—glorious, all-American football—is giving Mixon a second chance at becoming a new and better man. There is, of course, no way of knowing if that’s true. Only Mixon and maybe his closest friends and his family know what is in his heart and whether he’s changed since the night he punched a woman in the face, then walked away. All football watchers can know for certain is that he averaged 6.8 yards per carry in college and seems very likely to be a good NFL player; the rest is a guess, albeit one inched in the preferred NFL direction through a barrage of tweets, press releases, selected interviews, and quotes.
He will join a pro team despite a policy put in place by the NFL Scouting Combine to address issues such as domestic violence. That policy did not apply to Mixon, who didn’t commit an act of domestic violence (the woman he punched was a stranger) and also was not convicted (he agreed to an Alford plea). The combine banned him anyway; Mixon was so talented the ban didn’t matter. The combine is mostly meaningless, an event used to fill NFL Network airtime and create short-term news to feed the football news machine. Mixon, a talented running back, has value to the only people who matter—NFL owners.
So scouts went to Mixon’s pro day and watched the reams of footage of his college games that were already available, and—no surprise—one analyst said Mixon “impressed everybody that was out there.” For billion-dollar franchises, the effect of the ban was costing them the equivalent of pennies to buy a few plane tickets and book a hotel room or two; for Mixon, the effect was to probably make him a riskier pick, lowering his draft ranking and essentially driving down the price for him. NFL owners, a perpetually stingy lot despite their billions, won’t complain.
That’s how these policies work, and by and large are supposed to work—they provide just enough ideological cover to say you tried to do the right thing, without talking about the ugliness of reality. There’s no reason to think these policies will stop. Last week, Indiana University unveiled a policy that, while it takes up many more words than the combine’s, comes down to a similar selling point about keeping people safe from violent athletes. Will it? Probably not. But there’s no reason to think that matters.
Last week, Indiana unveiled (via the Indianapolis Star) a new policy that banned “any prospective student-athlete—whether a transfer student, incoming freshman or other status—who has been convicted of or pleaded guilty or no contest to a felony involving sexual violence.” The athletic director called it an “important policy to help protect members of the Indiana University community.”
This sounds great. Who doesn’t want to protect college students? It only starts to seem off once you start thinking about the relationship of crimes like domestic violence and sexual assault to America’s criminal justice system—and how the pledge decades ago to get tough on them, like getting tough on so many crimes, has failed.
The federal government estimates that just more than half of all domestic violence are reported to the police; the rate is even lower for sexual assault, at 32.5 percent. There are myriad reasons these numbers are low. In domestic violence cases, victims fear retaliation from abusers for reporting, or rely on their partner’s paycheck, or are afraid the police will throw them in jail too. A 2006 survey found the most common reason women gave for not reporting their rape was they feared their rapist. And that ignores how many people do report rapes but are dismissed because investigators don’t want to bother with their case or later find out their rape kit was never tested.
The numbers aren’t much better for cases that are prosecuted. The most optimistic number on sexual assault is that 37 percent of those reported go to trial. When the federal government randomly examined domestic violence cases in 15 counties back in 2008, it found that 65.6 percent of domestic-violence aggravated assaults were prosecuted. The most common reason for domestic-violence cases being dropped was because victims stopped cooperating.
Those are before factoring in even more complications. Felony crimes take years to get to a jury, so, unless the crime happened when the accused was 15, it’s probable that this prospective student will not have been found guilty or not guilty yet during the high school recruitment process. For transfer students from other colleges, the policy won’t cover students found responsible for sexual assault by the school via a Title IX hearing—those aren’t felony convictions. So the chances of many recruits or transfers who have been violent toward women actually meeting this standard is, in the most polite and generous reading, exceedingly small.
Basically, these are background checks. That’s all. There’s also some built-in wiggle room. From paragraph five of the policy, as reported by the Star (emphasis added is mine):
Specifically, consistent with the Student Conduct Policy, IU Athletics will carefully consider whether to recruit any prospective student-athletes with any serious and/or repetitive criminal, school discipline, or other misconduct issues. Also consistent with that policy, the sport administrator for the pertinent sport must approve the recruitment of any prospective student-athlete with any serious and/or repetitive criminal, school discipline, or other misconduct issues.
The policy does not say how this careful consideration will work. It also does not outline what a sports administrator must consider before approving of the recruitment. A good guess is that it includes the recruit’s 40-yard dash time.
Since the video of Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancée hit the Internet, various parts of the football universe and broader sports culture have put their own “domestic violence” policies in place. At first, I couldn’t help but notice how often these policies actually covered all violence against women, ignoring how rape, molestation, and domestic violence are all horrifying but very different crimes. The message seemed less about taking these social ills seriously and more about telling players to not make bad headlines involving women. Next followed the wave of policies that sounded good but were meaningless, like the one put in place for the combine, or the gibberish NFL flow chart, or, more recently, the one extolled by Indiana.
MLB struck a reasonably good balance with its handling of the Jeurys Familia case, but that only came after several other cases, including one where a player who admitted to firing a gun inside his own home after a fight with his girlfriend attended just one counseling session. The balance here also involved MLB deciding that, even though it’s basically a glorified entertainment company with the benefit of a government-sanctioned monopoly, it needed to weigh on on what it thinks happened between Familia and his wife, declaring that the evidence “does not support a determination that Mr. Familia physically assaulted his wife,” as if what MLB said was as important as police, prosecutors, or a judge and jury. The NHL similarly decided it was within its power to declare Patrick Kane innocent of a sexual assault allegation. The NBA similarly continues to say it will have some sort of program geared toward domestic violence and sexual assault in its CBA, although those details still haven’t been reported yet.
Sports leagues will continue throwing out policies even though there’s no way for any of them to come to any one policy that works. Five different types of violence against women can happen, involving five different couples, and five different approaches will make sense, each matching each individual situation. The nearest thing to a policy that will work—each team gathering as much information as it can while being respectful of the victim and the criminal justice system but also being fair to the accused, and trying to make a decision that is best for the victim and any children involved while also taking into account whether the accused poses a danger and whether there is a way to support that person in their attempts to get better, assuming they want to—isn’t ideal for a press release.
Mixon deserves a chance; destroying someone’s life doesn’t accomplish anything unless you have investments in private prison stocks. But it’s worth remembering why Mixon is getting that second chance. It’s not because America is finally having a conversation about how to stop domestic violence before it starts; it’s not because there’s a proactive push to end sexist attitudes toward women or close the pay gap; it’s not because a national conversation is happening about how to reform people who have done wrong rather than just shoving them in jail cells; and it’s not because there is an uptick in compassion or empathy or caring. It’s because he’s good at football, and it’s only because he’s good at football. It was always about football. That’s enough, and makes for its own explanation. But the rest—making a show of cutting him out of a dog-and-pony show he never needed to take part in; hand-wringing over him being the face of a class of crime he never committed; and the need, everywhere, for teams and leagues to make sure that everyone knows they’re deeply concerned with making things right—never had anything to do with any of this. As always, that was about nothing more and nothing less than public relations.