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Bengals' Joe Mixon pick forefronts complicated moral issues

CINCINNATI -- Joe Mixon has seen the video we have all seen by now.

"It hurt to see it," he said.

It has hurt to live it, for Mixon and certainly more so for the victim of his punch, Amelia Molitor. The two recently settled her civil lawsuit after finally speaking face to face about the assault that has changed their lives, that altered the courseof Mixon's draft, that, by extension, has put the Cincinnati Bengals right back into renegade territory, where they seem curiously satisfied to live. That settlement helped the Bengals make peace with their consideration of Mixon in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft, coach Marvin Lewis said, but if it freed the Bengals' consciences and Mixon from his obligations, it has hardly helped shed the stigma that he carries with him into his professional life. All of the smiling relief, the seemingly sincere and remorseful answers, the apparent willingness to go before media and fans at a draft party, can't do that.

"This is definitely going to be attached to my name the rest of my life, and [at] the end of the day, I'm going to do whatever I can to move forward and move past it," Mixon said in an interview Saturday afternoon. "Just keep playing, and I look forward to having a great career here and being the best teammate and person possible."

Mixon was received warmly at the draft party, probably not a surprise from a self-selecting group clad in tiger-striped jerseys. The Bengals seem determined to treat Mixon as just another supremely talented draft pick -- he was scheduled to do an autograph session at the pro shop before his flight was delayed, for example -- in the hopes that he would address the horror in his past now and then move on to the more rudimentary topics of being a rookie. But it's almost certainly not going to be that easy. The ABC affiliate in Cincinnati wrote an editorial Friday night imploring Bengals fans to boycott the team and to use the money they may have spent on a playoff-game ticket to donate to a charity aimed at preventing violence against women.

"Enough is enough," the editorial said.

It has never been quite enough in Cincinnati, though, and it is fair to wonder if whatever disgust exists about Mixon will soon dissipate as it has in the past.

Bengals owner Mike Brown has long been comfortable with being the Father Flanagan of the NFL, taking on wayward players, often at favorable financial terms. Occasionally he allows that he may be too tolerant, but that should not be confused with an admission that he might be making a mistake. No team would draft Mixon, a first-round talent, without the consent of the owner, and there couldn't be anybody familiar with NFL ownership who was surprised where he landed.

In 2006, I sat down with Lewis for an interview for a story in The New York Times. The Bengals were such a stew of arrests and suspensions and deactivations then -- think the late Chris Henry and Odell Thurman and Deltha O'Neal -- that fans had taken to calling them the Mean Machine, a reference to the team of convicts in "The Longest Yard," and Commissioner Roger Goodell, new in his role of enforcer, called Brown to offer the league's assistance. Lewis said he had come to hate the word "situation," because that is the word the team's security director would invariably use in the middle-of-the-night calls to tell Lewis that someone else had gone astray.

"That's when I say, 'Oh, geez, what did we do now?' " Lewis said then. His frustration was apparent then, although he pointed out that if all players with character issues were eliminated from roster consideration, "you'd have very few guys left to draft."

Lewis had the benefit of strong locker room leadership then. While chaos swirled around, the Bengals were kept afloat by a core of players and powerful leaders like Carson Palmer and Willie Anderson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The most glaring question for the Bengals right now is who will play that role for Mixon. Who will keep him on track if he begins to go astray? Mixon is still just 20 years old, and no matter how good his intentions, it is almost inevitable for even the most baggage-free of prospects that they will eventually need some elder guidance.

If we can take a remark from that 2006 conversation and extrapolate it now, we can assume that Lewis thinks that just being here, handed a second chance, will shape Mixon, and perhaps, to a degree, save him:

"It's an investment that playing in the NFL can help you, you will grow into a better person, or a responsible person because of the privilege to play here."

It's obvious not much has changed in his viewpoint. One of the first things Lewis said after drafting Mixon was this thing has to move forward, and Mixon has to move on. It is a refrain that is likely to exasperate a segment of Bengals fans who have repeatedly been asked to forgive and forget the latest transgressions, many of them accumulated by Adam Jones.

What has changed is the presence and extraordinary reach of video and our demand for instant judgment. It is almost impossible to assess the depth of Mixon's sincerity now. Only time will tell whether this is the beginning of a pattern of violence or an aberration, as his high school coach Kevin Hartwig insisted in an interview with NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport. The Mixon he knows is the kid who broke up a fight in the high school cafeteria, stepping in when a boy was hitting a girl.

"It's a situation he's never been in before, just a poor decision," Hartwig said of the incident on the video. "But a 15-second video -- and I do not condone that -- that's not him."

That goes directly to the question of what you believe and whether Mixon should even be here. In conversations with team executives leading up to the draft, their mixed emotion seemed to reflect the greater public. There were those who were simply happy their team already had a running back so he didn't even have to think about Mixon. There were others who viewed it analytically, as a relatively low-risk pick, because the slide down the draft board saves the Bengals millions. But Mixon was completely off the board for some teams, and one team personnel executive summed up his feelings about Mixon like this:

"He makes me sick," he said. "And some idiot will draft him."

"We are so full of crap."

That executive is particularly disgusted by what he believes is the hypocrisy of the NFL, which vowed to take a firm stand against domestic violence after Ray Rice introduced damning videos to the list of controversies. Now, with Mixon and with the celebration of Chiefs sensation Tyreek Hill -- who choked and punchedhis pregnant girlfriend before he became a rookie phenom -- it has to wonder where that stand is when domestic violence may be unacceptable in some circumstances, but acceptable when an exceptional player can be acquired at a bargain price.

NFL decision makers are not alone in their malleable morality. We all want to believe we will stand firmly against the kind of behavior Mixon showed. But every day, we buy music from singers, go to movies featuring actors, tune in to television shows headlined by stars who exhibit abhorrent behavior and are allowed to continue their lucrative livelihoods unabated, with a soundtrack of applause. It is a question that surfaced shortly after Rice's video did: Why do we expect the NFL to be the agent for social change when the institutions that are charged with that responsibility don't always do it, while with our choices, we are all quietly complicit?

Hill might be the best example of this. A year ago, he was drafted in the fifth round by the Kansas City Chiefs. There are surely plenty of people who root for the Chiefs who find Hill repugnant. But there was an awful lot of cheering last year when Hill scored 12 touchdowns and was an All-Pro as a rookie. Even some league officials shook their heads at how quickly Hill's immense transgression receded into the depths of his biography, well behind his sterling stat sheet. There was no video of Hill's violence though, and that may in part explain how Hill popped up in another video -- a year-end NFL highlight reel shown at the most recent league meeting, according to one dismayed team official who saw it.

Mixon has said all the right things since he was drafted, and whether you think he should have been drafted or not, the only thing to do now is hope that he is successful -- as a player, sure, but also at keeping himself from ever committing another act of violence. He wants to be involved in the community, to talk to young people and adults about his experience, to encourage them not to repeat his transgressions.

We have seen plenty of second chances granted before, to wildly varying results. Lawrence Phillips proved irredeemable. But Brandon Marshall, who had domestic violence issues earlier in his career, has become a passionate and eloquent spokesman for the mental healthcare he received that changed his life. Michael Vick, who was greeted by protesters when the Eagles signed him after he was released from a federal prison, remains one of the most remarkable turnaround stories imaginable.

Whatever you think about the Bengals wrapping their arms around Mixon, remember this. He was 18 when he punched Molitor and is just 20 now. His formidable football skills survived a one-year suspension and have now forced all of us to wrestle with the haunting question of whether we are comfortable writing off someone so young. Mixon is not entitled to a job in the NFL any more than a welder is entitled to one on a construction site, and neither will have a job for long without performing up to expectations. But it is naïve to think that only the NFL and only the Bengals offer opportunities to men who demean women. That Mixon's second chance translates into the potential for much greater earnings than the welder -- that we are having the conversation again so soon after Rice first made it a headline -- is not his fault. It's ours.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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