The Issue with Joe Mixon: The NFL’s Sordid History of Domestic Violence

This is Kristen Lennon, one of the many women subject to domestic violence at the hands of an NFL player -- in this case, former Dolphins DE Phillip Merling.

This is Kristen Lennon, one of the many women subject to domestic violence at the hands of an NFL player — in this case, former Dolphins DE Phillip Merling.

In February 2014, former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was arrested and charged with assault after surveillance footage caught him knocking his wife out then dragging her unconscious body from the elevator. On March 27, 2014, a grand jury indicted Rice on third-degree aggravated assault, with a possible jail sentence of three to five years and a fine of up to $15,000. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell handed down a two game suspension for Rice in the 2014 season. Goodell would later say of the punitive decision, “[I] didn’t get it right.” He also promised revised player conduct policies with greater punishments for domestic violence-related situations.

On Sunday, May 18 of that same year, current Saints and former Vikings running back Adrian Peterson used a switch (a thin branch or rod used for whipping) to discipline his son after the boy pushed another one of Peterson’s sons off of a motorbike video game. The punishment resulted in bruises and lacerations on the boy’s back, legs, arms and buttocks. His son was 4 years-old.

After being charged with felony child abuse, Peterson was placed on the NFL commissioner’s “exempt list,” which meant he was barred from play but still receiving pay.

On Tuesday, November 18, 2014, Goodell announced the league would suspend Peterson without pay through the end of the season and make him ineligible to return before April 15, 2015.

In July 2014, former Carolina Panthers’ defensive end Greg Hardy was found guilty of assaulting his former girlfriend and threatening to kill her. He was not placed on the exempt list until Sept. 18. He was later given a 10-game suspension for violating the NFL Personal Conduct Policy. That was eventually reduced to a four-game suspension.

Former San Francisco 49ers’ defensive end (and current free agent) Ray McDonald was arrested Aug. 31 2014 on felony domestic abuse charges. On Nov. 10 of that same year (a real banner year for the NFL brand apparently), the Santa Clara District Attorney’s office announced that they would not be pressing charges against McDonald, citing insufficient evidence. The state of California would later open an investigation into how one of its officers who worked part time for the 49ers was at McDonald’s home around the time of his arrest.

Less than a month later, the Niners released McDonald after he was implicated in a sexual assault investigation. Then in May of 2015, he was arrested again on suspicion of domestic violence and possible child endangerment.

And then there was the case of Phillip Merling, who — five years earlier in late May 2010 — was booked on charges of aggravated domestic battery on a pregnant woman after police arrived to find Merling’s fiancé, Kristin Lennon, with redness and swelling on her face and a cut on her lip. She was two months pregnant.

And this is where the NFL’s relationship to domestic abuse gets dicey.

Generally, almost all inmates are required to exit the station through the front door and find their own transportation home. But on this night in late May, Mr. Merling was granted an unusual privilege: He was escorted out a rear exit by a deputy,. The commander, who was off duty and in uniform, drove Merling in an unmarked car to the Dolphins’ training complex 20 minutes away.

After meeting with team officials, the commander then drove Merling home to get his belongings — even after a judge had ordered him to avoid any potential contact with Ms. Lennon.

It was an odd occurrence, but one that happens often in the NFL. It is well known that NFL teams often cultivate close relationships with local enforcement, and even — as in the case of McDonald and Merling — employ off-duty cops for a number of reasons including uniformed escorts and team security. These officers receive perks that others don’t. And when criminal allegations of domestic violence arise, this special relationship between officers and team officials tend to favor the player while leaving the victim feeling isolated and without recourse for sufficient justice.

Somehow, neither the NFL nor the Dolphins ever suspended Mr. Merling, and he returned to the field right after his arrest. “He went right back into minicamp,” Ms. Lennon, 25, said in an interview in 2014 in Columbia, South Carolina, where she now lives. “I saw pictures of him stretching.”

Now put yourself for a moment in Ms. Lennon’s shoes. Imagine seeing your abuser going right back to business as usual without any serious repercussions. It is no different than a victim at a university seeing her rapist walking casually on campus. It sends a message that the success of the abuser takes priority over the victim’s safety. It is the kind of thing that keeps many domestic violence victims living in silence.

Ms. Lennon, in that same 2014 interview, said of Merling’s return to football, “I wasn’t surprised. The players are the only ones they care about.”

From Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh to Matthew Barnett in Maryville, MO, this trend has been made grossly apparent. The welfare of the player takes precedent over the welfare of the victim. The NFL, a non-profit organization that generates billions of dollars in revenue, is no different in this way than a high school that runs a rape victim out of town for accusing the senior quarterback of sexual assault.

In more recent years — specifically since 2014 when a series of domestic and sexual violence cases plagued the league’s public image — the NFL has taken steps toward enforcing a stricter personal conduct policy. After the Ray Rice debacle, it appeared that Roger Goodell was going to get tough on the issue.

After the public outcry against the NFL’s leniency on the issue, Goodell announced that a minimum six game suspension would be handed down to any players accused of domestic violence. He also said that four women would be hired to help shape the league’s policies. Among them was a former head of the sex crimes prosecution unit in the Manhattan district attorney’s office. She was given the title of senior vice president, special counsel for investigations. But it’s unclear how effective these hirings really were.

Worse, cases have arisen in which the six-game rule was ignored — such as Greg Hardy, whose ten-game suspension was reduced to four in 2014. Moreover since the six-game rule was put in place, only three of 10 players who were potentially affected by it have received a suspension of that length. In most cases, because of what the league terms mitigating circumstances, players involved in domestic violence cases have been suspended for two or three games at most.

One of those mitigating circumstances tends to be the refusal of the victim to cooperate. In the case of Kristen Lennon, she was living in another state, and was eight months pregnant when courts summoned her to testify. She declined and as a result no formal charges were filed. This is by no means an isolated incident.

In 2016, following reports that Giants kicker Josh Brown admitted to “physically, verbally and emotionally” abusing his wife, the Giants and the league launched an investigation into the matter. After police refused to release details of the case until it was closed, the league felt their disciplinary actions were limited, especially because prosecutors decided against filing charges against the player. When Brown’s ex-wife declined to cooperate, the team and league felt there was little recourse to hand down punishment. So the Giants took the kicker off its active roster, and the league suspended him indefinitely with pay, before allowing him to return to the field after a mere one-game suspension.

Problem is, the team had apparently known of the abuse when Brown signed a two-year, $4 million contract in April. In light of that, many are wondering why he was allowed to sign at all.

Some, including advocates for domestic violence victims, have said a zero-tolerance policy is in order — that any player accused of committing domestic violence should be kept from the field and withheld pay for their actions.

Giants co-owner John K. Mara had previously defended the team’s decision to keep Brown after the case closed.

“I have four daughters and seven sisters, and I know I have to face each one of them,” Mara said when the team announced it would retain Brown after his first suspension was handed down in August. “These are not easy decisions. It is very easy to say, ‘The guy has been accused,’ ‘Get rid of him,’ ‘Terminate him,’ but when you are sitting at the top of an organization and you are responsible for a lot of people, you better make more informed decisions than that.”

The mother of a Giants player, Eli Apple, who was the team’s top draft choice in 2016, vented her anger on social media.

“As a domestic violence survivor,” Annie Apple posted on her Twitter account, “reading these Mara comments makes me sad, angry and completely baffled. He just doesn’t get it. This is sad.”

Later when the Giants traveled to London for the league’s yearly international game, Coach Ben McAdoo seemed to side with Mara by saying, “We’re not going to turn our back on Josh. He’s a teammate and a guy we’re hoping makes strides.”

And that’s kind of the culture the NFL has taken on in recent years — that alleged domestic abusers are guys they’re hoping make strides. Enter Bengals rookie running back Joe Mixon.

Mixon leaving the Cleveland County Courthouse in Norman, Okla., after being arraigned on assault charges August 2015. Credit Jay Chilton/The Norman Transcript, via Associated Press

Mixon leaving the Cleveland County Courthouse in Norman, Okla., after being arraigned on assault charges in August 2015. Credit Jay Chilton/The Norman Transcript, via Associated Press

With the 48th overall pick in the NFL Draft, the Cincinnati Bengals selected the 20 year-old former Sooners standout. Immediately after the selection was made, media outlets called Mixon the most controversial pick in the draft. It was met with public outrage by domestic violence advocates and fans alike. In some cases, due to the player’s past, he was taken off draft boards entirely.


Because in late July, 2014, Mixon was about to enter his first fall camp at Oklahoma when he and some friends saw Amelia Molitor outside of a sandwich shop in Norman. After Molitor rejected the group’s advances, Mixon followed her into the restaurant. He later told police that he had heard a racial slur from a male friend of Molitor’s. What started with name calling quickly turned into physical violence.

In surveillance video, Molitor can be seen pushing Mixon, at which point he lunges at her. She slaps him, then he punches her, and as she falls, her face slams against a table. She broke four bones in her face. Mixon was charged with a misdemeanor and was suspended for his entire freshman season with the Sooners. But many saw that as too minimal a reaction.

“Personally, I think that’s a tap on the wrist, to be suspended for the season, considering the severity of the attack,” said Vanessa Morrison, a women’s advocate at the Women’s Resource Center, a nonprofit in Norman, Okla. “That sends a message about how violence against women is viewed, considering the level and dangerousness of the crime he committed.”

He later accepted a plea deal, received a one-year deferred sentence and was ordered to perform 100 hours of community service and undergo counseling. Molitor later filed a civil suit. But Mixon still played two solid seasons for the Sooners.

That civil suit was eventually settled. Mixon and Molitor met in Mixon’s lawyer’s office in Oklahoma City. As part of that settlement the two issued a joint statement saying they were both moving forward. Mixon apologized to Molitor in person and the two shared a hug. And for the most part, that seemed to be the end of it.

Much of that, many argue, is because access to the actual video footage of the attack was kept hidden from public view. As time went on and Oklahoma proved successful on the field, public demand to see the video faded.

This contrasts sharply with Ray Rice’s case. Not long after Rice’s two-game suspension was announced, the actual video, which was initially kept from public view, surfaced in a leak by TMZ in September. Back in May, Rice, his wife Janay at his side, apologized in a press conference. At the time, Ravens’ coach, John Harbaugh, said he supported Rice and Ravens fans gave him a loud ovation during a preseason game. But that was before the video surfaced.

Afterwards, everything changed. Coach Harbaugh said that the new video, which he’d never seen before, made things different.

“It changed things, of course,” Harbaugh said.

After hundreds of calls and multiple thousand-plus-signature petitions poured into the NFL office protesting Rice’s actions and the leniency of the league’s response, the Ravens announced Rice’s release on their Twitter account. Shortly following, the league handed down an indefinite suspension. Largely due to that video and the immense controversy surrounding him, Rice remains a free agent to this day. In 2016, he vowed to donate 100% of his salary to domestic violence charities if he was signed by a team. So far, no team has bit on the offer.

So you have to wonder whether things would be different for Mixon if that video had ever reached the public eye. Instead, Mixon got his chance at redemption, playing two seasons for the Sooners before entering the draft, and now getting drafted early in the second round of the NFL Draft.

Nonetheless, the incident — which happened three years ago — still follows Mixon like a shadow. In his last game with Oklahoma, fans hurled “He hits women!” chants down upon him. Shortly after that, he was barred from the NFL combine, which would have given him the opportunity to meet with all 32 teams. Nonetheless, he had his pro day. 15 teams were able to meet with him. They all asked him the same question: what happened that fateful July day?

And he answered as best he could. For all intents and purposes, it seemed clear that Mixon was committed to rehabilitating his image. Many believe, if not for the incident he might have been a top ten pick. Indeed his highlight reel shows a player with the potential to be a star rusher in the NFL, reminiscent of bruiser Le’Veon Bell. Among those who see that are the Cincinnati Bengals — a team known for taking chances on high-risk players.

In 2006, the Bengals had more players arrested (nine) than wins (eight). Cincy owner Mike Brown has often been called “The Great Redeemer” for his willingness to stand by players of questionable character, even after they continue to make mistakes. He has often been criticized for being too lax in his approach, and more recently went so far as to admit to and the Cincinnati Enquirer that maybe he was “overly tolerant” of Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones after his most recent run-in with the law.

But unlike Jones — who has a pattern of suspect behavior — Mixon is only twenty years old. He has no history, beyond the incident with Molitor, of domestic violence. He fulfilled his community service obligations. He sat out the 2014 suspension. And now, he is prepared to demonstrate his virtue on and off the field.

“People try to perpetrate me as some type of bad guy, some monster for one mistake I made three years ago,” Mixon said in a recent interview with ESPN. “I want people to get around me, to come talk to me, to be comfortable. I’m not trying to really prove anything. I just want people to get around me and get a feel for me. If they don’t like me then, hey, so be it. I’m sorry they feel like that.

“I want to go out and help kids maybe. I want to help and talk at shelters with women. I hope to make a difference.”

Now, those are nice words. And it would be wonderful if he followed them up with tangible action. Thus far, he has shown a real commitment to putting the past behind him. But the bigger question is, does he deserve a second chance at all?

There is no question that humans deserve compassion, even after making decisions that harm others. But there is a big difference between compassion and enabling. At what point does allowing a player with Mixon’s history to compete send the message to athletes everywhere that no matter how heinous their actions are, they might still one day get the chance to make millions of dollars on a world stage? It’s simply one more notch in a system that prioritizes the potential success of a player with a history of domestic violence over the safety and welfare of the victim. Allowing Mixon to play for the Bengals may just prove to be another mistake on the part of a professional organization with a history of mishandling domestic violence issues.

So far, Mixon is doing his best to keep his head down and his spirits up. Shortly after being drafted, he took to Twitter to express his gratitude and excitement. “Thanks to my family @OU_Football and everyone who helped me get here! Let’s get to work @Bengals …”

But the work extends far beyond the training facility and the football field. According to a decision-maker for another NFL team, who spoke to ESPN on the condition of anonymity, a team has “got to put together a plan where [the player has] to go out in the community. It’s going to be rough at first, but you’ve got to go out in the community and you’ve got to make him look good.”

Mixon himself has acknowledged that he’s got to live with the incident. For years now, he has done his best to keep his cool and remain focused on his goal of being a successful athlete and positive force in the community. Now he’s in the NFL. He’ll probably be the starting running back for the Bengals come August. And whether people like it or not, he’s going to show how he lives with this hanging over him; he’s going to get a chance to prove himself, whether he says he has anything to prove or not.

With that said, there’s something worth watching about how he lives with his actions from this point on. In a league known for giving second and third chances to players who violate personal conduct policies, a league known for being too lenient despite saying they’ll do more, and they’ll do better, Mixon might just be the NFL’s second chance, so to speak.

No matter what you think about the situation, there’s a conversation to be had here– even as the NFL season slowly gets back into full swing, as rookie camps give way to July training camps, and Sunday media coverage drowns out the talk about Mixon — there’s an important dialogue we all need to engage more fully. Amid the justified outrage over another violent athlete receiving a chance many think he shouldn’t, there is a dialogue to be had about disciplinary action, rehabilitation, anger management, and the ways in which interventions might help said athletes effectively change behavior and prevent future violence — a dialogue about how the NFL and organizations of similar power and repute approach matters of domestic violence and sexual assault. The poignant league-sponsored Super Bowl PSAs, the “No More” campaigns, the charitable efforts — they are all well and good, but if the problem keeps happening it’s clear that we as a society, and indeed the ones with the money and influence, are not doing enough to change things.

So if you’re looking for something about this Joe Mixon story that’s worth following, try focusing your lens on a player and a league that both contend to be focused on working through their issues, on doing better by themselves, and by the victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, who every day remain silenced and ostracized for speaking their truths. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a decent example of something that can come out of all this after all.

Then again, maybe not. The jury is still out.