Joe Mixon will leave Oklahoma and declare for the NFL draft

Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon has decided to give up his remaining collegiate eligibility and turn professional. The talented running back will present some NFL teams with a difficult decision, given that he sat out his freshman season after punching a female student in the face, video of which was recently made public.

Some NFL teams may opt to take him off their draft boards altogether, although, over the past two seasons, Mixon displayed the ability to be a high pick under normal circumstances. This season, the 6-foot-1, 226-pound back averaged 6.8 yards per carry and 14.5 yards per reception while racking up 1,812 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns. In the Sooners’ Sugar Bowl win Monday over Auburn, Mixon gained 180 yards from scrimmage, with two touchdowns.

Ten days before that bowl game, and in the wake of the video’s release, Mixon offered a public apology for punching the woman, Amelia Molitor. “I take full responsibility for what happened,” the 20-year-old said at a news conference. “It’s never okay to hit a woman. Never. I’ll preach that to anybody.”

The incident occurred in July 2014 at a restaurant near Oklahoma’s campus in Norman. Then a recent recruit to the Sooners’ program, Mixon exchanged words with Molitor before she pushed him. He responded by feinting a punch, at which point Molitor slapped him in the neck.

Mixon then punched Molitor, sending her to the floor and breaking multiple bones in her face. Mixon received a deferred prison sentence and community service for the act, plus he was held out of play during the following football season; a lawsuit filed by Molitor is still pending. Mixon apologized for the incident, but had rarely spoken about it, nor had the school allowed reporters to ask about it, before December.

However, NFL teams will be asking Mixon plenty of questions about the incident, looking for ways in which his answers may reveal his ongoing character. Player personnel executives in the league conduct exhaustive reviews of prospects, and in one notorious 2010 episode, Dez Bryant was reportedly asked by a Dolphins official if his mother was a prostitute.

In a post to his Twitter account Thursday evening, Mixon confirmed media reports that was turning pro. Saying that “much” of his time at Oklahoma “was challenging,” Mixon wrote, “I take full responsibility for that. That is why I promise not to waste the second chance that was given to me. … I also pledge to use my own experience as a platform to teach other young men never — and I repeat, never — to make the mistakes that I made. … I make this promise: I will be the best person I can be.”

An Oklahoma State prospect who also had a 2014 incident of violence against a woman, wide receiver Tyreek Hill, fell to the fifth round in the 2016 draft. Hill went on to become a breakout performer for the Chiefs in his first pro season, but one major difference between his case and Mixon’s is that there is no known video of Hill’s act, in which he punched his pregnant girlfriend in the stomach and choked her.

In that sense, Mixon’s case may be more similar to that of Ray Rice, an ominous portent for the Oklahoma player, given that, since video emerged of Rice punching his then-fiancee in a casino elevator, the former Raven has not been able to find employment in the NFL. On the other hand, Rice had already spent six seasons in the NFL at that point and shown signs of being on the downslope of his career, while Mixon figures to be in peak athletic condition for years to come.

NFL teams won’t run the risk of drafting Mixon only to see him suspended for the 2014 incident because it occurred while he was in college. However, under league rules toughened after the Rice scandal, a similar act by Mixon could have him deemed a repeat offender and punished severely.

Mixon’s head coach at Oklahoma, Bob Stoops, recently claimed that the climate had changed since the running back was punished by being made to sit out the 2014 season. Nowadays, “dismissal is really the only thing that is possible” for an act such as the one Mixon committed, Stoops said.

Veteran ABC announcer Brent Musburger got a sense of that climate while calling the Sugar Bowl, when he praised Oklahoma for giving Mixon another chance and expressed his hopes about the back’s NFL future. Before the game ended, Musburger was alerted to the fact that he himself was receiving plenty of criticism on social media for his comments. While still on the air, Musburger proceeded to double down on his words of support, but NFL teams likely took notice of the fact that Mixon is still very much a lightning rod.

Mixon could have returned to play another season for the Sooners, in the hope that the furor over his punching of Molitor would die down to some degree. However, by doing so, he would have risked suffering a major injury before turning pro. Now NFL teams must weigh the risk of public backlash, at the very least, for drafting him.

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