In 1996, Lawrence Phillips unwillingly became the poster child for drafting for football ability over character. In three years at Nebraska, Phillips was a phenom of a Running Back, finishing his career with over 3,000 yards, a 6.1 YPC average, and averaged a touchdown for every 15 carries. When his pads came off, Phillips had a series of disturbing incidents that should have raised red flags and removed him from team draft boards.
There was a 1994 incident in which he was accused of strangling a fellow student. In 1995, he took his ex-girlfriend, Women’s Basketball player Kate McEwen by the hair, dragged her down three flights of stairs, and smashed her head into a mailbox. Phillips received only a slap on the wrist suspension for his misdeeds, and at the conclusion of his junior season, he declared for the 1996 NFL draft as an underclassman.
With Phillips’ entry, teams at the top of the board were faced with the ethical dilemma of weighing his unbelievable football talent against the cons of selecting a man with a history of brutal acts of violence. After waiting a short five picks, the St. Louis Rams pulled the trigger and selected Phillips 6th overall. If Phillips had already begun a downward spiral at Nebraska, he completely unraveled upon getting drafted. After joining the Rams, Phillips was arrested three times in 19 months, spending 23 days in jail over that period of time [Source]. But the final straw? With ten games into his second season, Rams Head Coach Dick Vermeil cut Phillips after he collapsed during pre-game warmups while drunk.
Phillips bounced around the NFL, NFL Europe, and even the CFL before his career ended in 2003. His post-football career was marred with legal troubles that landed him in prison and culminated with the murder of his cellmate. Phillips would ultimately commit suicide in early 2016.
Lawrence Phillips became the boogeyman example for teams considering draft entrants of questionable character, the outlying case study that became a deterrent for using early picks on controversial prospects.
In the 20+ years since the 1996 draft, the “Phillips Dilemma” of weighing football ability to character has arisen on numerous occasions. With every draft, a controversial prospect arises where the question is asked “how high will this guy go, even with the skeletons in his closet?” In 2016, there was Tyreke Hill who had been dismissed from Oklahoma State for punching his pregnant girlfriend in the stomach. The Chiefs would ultimately select him in the 5th round, where he made a first team All-Pro as a rookie. In 2015, Jameis Winston was selected by the Buccaneers #1 overall despite an allegation of sexual assault.
With the 2017 NFL Draft a month away, the most polarizing entrant this year is former Oklahoma Running Back Joe Mixon, another on field talent but the quintessential red flag character prospect. With Mixon's domestic violence incident on video, the decision a team will make to draft him will be accompanied with intense scrutiny over how far they're willing to go to to allow football ability to outweigh character. This post is intended to review the facts of the case, provide accounts of each party, and review considerations that teams will have in deciding to take him-- or allow someone else to.
The Pickleman Incident
On July 25, 2014, the day after Joe Mixon's 18th birthday, a surveillance video inside Pickleman’s Gourmet Café shows Mia Molitor enter the restaurant with a friend after 2:00 am. Joe Mixon follows them in shortly thereafter. Mixon approaches Molitor’s table. A verbal confrontation ensues. Molitor proceeds to lunge at Mixon, shoving him. Mixon cocks his head forward in confrontation as if to invite another swing from Molitor. She responds with a slap to the right side of Mixon’s face, and within a blink of an eye, Mixon throws a devastating right hook that connects with Molitor’s face. Her head slams into the table as she falls to the ground, rendering her temporarily unconscious and with a fractured jaw, cheekbone, and sinuses. Within four seconds of punching Molitor, Mixon leaves the restaurant. The following passages display both Molitor and Mixon's account of the video and why these actions unfolded as they did.
Molitor's account begins outside Pickleman's, where she was waiting while a friend was inside to use the restroom. Molitor claims to have been hit on by Mixon and his friends, and went inside the deli to avoid them. In a video statement provided to the Norman Police Department, Molitor stated: "
"You know, they were commenting on, like, how I looked. And it was just like — it’s, like, very uncomfortable. I mean, it was degrading kind of, in a way, the things that they were saying to me. Like I was, like, a piece of meat, and I don’t take kindly to that.
So my first reaction was to laugh. Like, I was, like, “Uh, bye.” Like, “Leave me alone.” [Source]
As Molitor entered the restaurant, Mixon's friends allegedly egged him on to follow her in and confront her for rejecting his advances.
Molitor claimed that Mixon said "Oh, so you'd rather go home with that f---ing f----t?'" in reference to Molitor's friend. This prompted Molitor's rage. "I got really mad, so I faced Joe and was like, 'Don't f--- with me. Do not mess with my friend. Just stop. Go away.' And he was like, 'Oh, you're a bad b----, what are you going to do about it?...It was like I got hit by a train and, like, black,” Molitor admits to initiating the physical contact, a claim backed up by the video.
Mixon's account paints Molitor as the instigator in the confrontation. Outside of Pickelman's, Mixon claimed that Molitor intentionally blew cigarette smoke in his and teammate Mark Andrews' face after Molitor felt threatened by Mixon and his teammates. [Source]
"...we had no problem with her, she was just being disrespectful, you know … smoking in my face and acting crazy...After that, the girl, I guess she got scared or what, she went up inside," Mixon said. Upon following her into the restaurant, Mixon alleged that Molitor's friend hurled a racial slur at him.
“The gay dude … he called me something,” Mixon said in his testimony video. Mixon admits to responding with a homophobic slur, a claim backed by Molitor's account as well. “He was like (slur). So then I was like, you got me messed up." [Source]
That's the moment the confrontation escalated from verbal to physical, according to Mixon. "And after that, the girl, she dropped her purse, that’s when she came in my face, pushed me, and then my glasses came off, and then, like, I had, like, jumped at her, like, to watch out." After Molitor slapped him, Mixon claimed it threw him off guard. "And after that, like, I was so shocked, because she hit me so hard. It felt like a dude hit me. And after that, like, my face went boom, my reaction was just right there.” [Source]
Mixon was charged with a misdemeanor for the Pickleman Incident and agreed to a plea deal that put him on probation for a year, with an additional 100 hours of community service and mandatory behavioral counseling. Oklahoma Head Coach Bob Stoops suspended Mixon for the rest of the 2014 season before getting reinstated in 2015. In 2016, Mixon had over 1,800 yards from scrimmage and 15 TD's. During the 2016 season, Mixon was suspended for one game for confronting a parking attendant, ripping up the ticket, and throwing it in her face, Mixon then "inched at the officer with vehicle in drive to intimidate the officer with vehicle," [Source]. He has a pending civil lawsuit from Molitor [Source].
After the assault, Molitor returned to Texas for surgery to have her jaw wired shut, restricted to a liquid diet and without feeling in the side of her face for six months. Despite the discouragement from her family and lawyers, Molitor returned to OU. After facing online harassment from fans and trolls, Molitor deleted her social media accounts [Source]. “Coming back was the hardest thing I've ever done...I've never been more proud of anything in my whole life than accomplishing this" Molitor said. Reflecting on the incident, Molitor said that Mixon: “Robbed me of a full year of the college experience. But it was worth staying. I'm stronger than I ever thought I could be.”
Mixon's Apology and questions of sincerity
On December 16, 2016, the Oklahoma State Supreme Court ordered the contents of the Pickleman surveillance video be released after a suit from the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters [Source]. Exactly one week later, on December 23, Mixon appeared before the Oklahoma media and offered a tear-filled apology. "I’m here to apologize to Miss Molitor," Mixon began. "Honestly, it really don’t matter what she did...It’s all on me the reason why we’re in this position right now. I take full responsibility of what happened that night. It’s never OK to hit a woman. Never. I will preach to anybody. It’s never OK. Hopefully to people around the world will learn from my mistake. I’m willing to teach.” [Source]
Mixon's apology came only after the release of the video to the public, taking him 882 days after the incident to issue a formal explanation, a delay he claims was made advice of legal counsel. The timing of his subsequent draft declaration suggests otherwise. Two weeks after his apology, on January 5, 2017, Joe Mixon declared for the NFL Draft, reiterating his claims to be a changed man, further bringing into question whether his apology was driven intrinsically by a sense of moral wrongdoing or extrinsically by his decision to declare-- most likely the latter. Per NFL policy, Mixon was prohibited from attending the NFL Combine as a domestic abuser. His Pro Day at Oklahoma was attended by all 32 NFL teams. He is expected to go as early as the first round-- or undrafted entirely.
Considerations for Drafting Joe Mixon
NFL General Managers offer starkly differing philosophies on so-called "red flag" prospects and if they're worth taking a chance on. The first consideration in drafting Mixon boils down to "Would he do this again and are we willing to risk it?"
Arizona GM Steve Keim has rolled the dice on controversial players, including Tyrann Mathieu (dismissed from LSU's football team for drug test failures) and Robert Nkemdiche (charged with drug possession). "We miss more so on the person than the player," Keim said. Keim emphasized the ability to learn from and internalize mistakes, and love of football as the differentiating factor in who he's willing to gamble on. "Whether a guy can learn it and whether he loves the game. If you can’t learn it, the coach isn’t going to put you on the field because he doesn’t feel comfortable and he doesn’t trust you. And if you don’t love it, it’s going to catch up with you at some point, regardless of how talented you are.” [Source]
Former Bucs GM and Falcons President Rich McKay had a far more conservative approach and would make "...conscious efforts to avoid players who had histories of shaky personal decisions...It's never going to be a no-risk situation. Not with 50-plus guys. But you can dramatically improve your odds." [Source]
There's the reputational consideration as well. In the 2010's alone, the NFL has inadequately dealt with a series of troubling domestic violence incidents, including Ray Rice, Josh Brown, Adrian Peterson, Ray McDonald, and Greg Hardy. These are just a few of the names on a list of "hundreds" of incidents that former Bears GM Jerry Angelo claims the league covered up. “Our business is to win games,” Angelo said. “We’ve got to win games, and the commissioner’s job is to make sure the credibility of the National Football League is held in the highest esteem...We got our priorities a little out of order.” [Source] League viewership, particularly among its female demographic has been on a rapid decline [Source], and the NFL's tolerance of domestic violence will only erode it further.
Then, there's the simple consideration with an even simpler answer: Should a team draft a man capable of hitting a woman in retaliation with enough force to fracture her face? The answer should be no; but, in all likelihood, Mixon will have his name called-- and probably early in the April draft.