The Media Column: NFL Draft analysts made excuses for Jeffery Simmons and ignored Tyreek Hill in another whitewash of league's domestic violence crisis

Alex Reimer
April 26, 2019 - 11:27 am
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Roughly five hours after a harrowing audio tape had leaked of Tyreek Hill threatening his fiancee when she accused him of breaking their toddler’s arm, the Titans selected defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons with the No. 19 overall pick in the NFL Draft. Simmons, an unanimous first-round selection, fell on teams’ boards due to a gruesome incident in high school in which he repeatedly struck a seemingly defenseless woman. The video was posted to the Internet three years ago and resurfaced in the lead-up to the draft. 

There is a backstory to the assault. The victim, who reportedly had a “toxic” relationship with Simmons’ family, was in an altercation with Simmons’ sister. The defensive lineman broke them up at first, but then wound up pummeling her himself. Despite the disturbing footage, Mississippi State allowed Simmons to play without delay, saying it believed the episode was “uncharacteristic” of its five-star recruit. The Titans used similar language Thursday, with general manager Jon Robinson saying he believes Simmons “made a mistake.”

That’s to be expected, considering the Titans were defending their choice to draft the troubled prospect. But unbeknown to Robinson, the team also appeared to employ multiple PR agents across the draft coverage Thursday. Every analyst on ESPN and NFL Network lauded Simmons’ character, and talked about his altercation as if it were just another piece of his portfolio, like a missed tackle or propensity to draw flags on the playing field. 

ESPN, to its credit, did show the video of the assault. But it was followed by several minutes of pro-Simmons testimonials, starting with host Trey Wingo, who characterized Simmons’ actions as an “emotional reaction from an 18-year-old player who was seeing a member of his family attacked.”

“Monday Night Football” commentator Booger McFarland offered the most full-throated defense of Simmons, chastising anybody who wished to judge Simmons based on his decision to unleash a flurry of punches on a woman who was on the ground.

“How many of us would like to be judged by the things we did in high school?,” McFarland said. “Everyone I talked to at Mississippi State swears by this young man. Everyone I trust in the SEC that knows this young man swears by his character, his integrity, and his personality. If those three things are in check, he’ll be good going forward. … I’m not concerned about him.”

It’s not unusual to see an athlete receive a second chance in the aftermath of a disturbing act of violence. By all accounts, Simmons stayed out of trouble in college, and has owned his actions. There’s nuance here.

But spare me the “boys will be boys” defense. While most of us made mistakes in high school, punching women rises above typical juvenile shenanigans. It was also off-putting to see hoards of men defending Simmons without any woman being asked to offer her input. 

The NFL Media is better on domestic violence than five years ago, when Adam Schefter wondered whether the league had been “lenient enough” on Ray Rice and Chris Berman interrupted his effusive praise of the Ravens’ laissez-faire handling of the Rice incident to tell us the punt had been blocked. But it still has a ways to go, as evidenced by the universal whitewashing of Simmons’ past and ignorance of the Hill story. The NFL Network didn’t mention Hill once during its draft coverage and ESPN failed to bring it up once the event started at 8:00 p.m. Anchor Samantha Ponder did ask Goodell about Hill in a pre-recorded interview that aired prior to the draft, but it was conducted before a Kansas City TV station obtained the chilling audio exchange. 

Whenever the NFL’s domestic violence crisis bubbles to the surface, in the form of another arrest for Reuben Foster or Hill telling his fiancee to be “terrified” of him in the aftermath of his apparent beatdown of the couple’s three-year-old son, we all wonder whether the league will reach a breaking point. The events of Thursday show that will probably never happen. Violence against women is ingrained as part of the league’s culture, explained away as a high school misstep or not mentioned at all. Hill became on the NFL’s most recognizable stars in recent years, and his strangulation of a then-pregnant Crystal Espinal faded to the background. The kid who threw a beer at Hill at Gillette Stadium last year underwent more scrutiny than the receiver himself.

As evidenced by the Chiefs’ recent acquisition of defensive end Frank Clark, who was kicked off the Michigan football team due to a domestic violence episode, there’s no accountability for employing woman-beaters. When teams do pick one up, there’s often a long line of football men wearing suites and lapel microphones waiting to defend the move.

It enables the vicious cycle.

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NFL Insiders all part of draft game: If you needed clarification as to whether our beloved NFL Insiders are closer to hype men than journalists, you got your answer in the lead-up to the NFL Draft. It was reported the league’s television partners were instructed to keep the identify of the No. 1 pick secret up until show time, in an apparent effort to drum up anticipation. It worked, because even though most of us surmised the Cardinals would take Kyler Murray, the selection didn’t leak until it was announced in Nashville.

In any other realm of news gathering, it would be blasphemous for an entity to order reporters to be mum about the big story of the day. But the NFL and its TV partners exchange billions of dollars with each other. Journalistic norms fly out the window when that kind of money is at stake.

Will Cain should be free to spout bad takes on ESPN without fear of reprisal: ESPN’s token right-winger Will Cain unleashed an incredibly bad Kate Smith take this week, comparing her old racist lyrics to Barack Obama’s early opposition to same-sex marriage. It’s a moronic point, because opposing gay marriage while supporting civil unions is not the same as singing about black kids eating juicy watermelons and picking cotton. Cain’s “First Take” cohorts, Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman, rightfully called him out on his idiocy.

As expected, scores of liberal sports bloggers eviscerated Cain as well. But some appeared to be attacking more than his opinion. One of the country’s preeminent sports media blog, “Awful Announcing,” seemed to question his employment. 

“Monday morning showed that ESPN can be balanced between ‘You shouldn’t disassociate yourself from people who did racist things, as long as they did them decades ago” and ‘Yes, you should,’” writes Andrew Buchholz. “And Cain’s also here to provide ‘balance’ on other questions that didn’t really seem like much of a debate, like ‘Should Antonio Brown be compared to a suicide bomber?’ and ‘Are NFL teams right to ask prospects if they’re gay?”’We’ll see what ‘balance’ he brings next.

In translation, Buchholz seems to be saying he doesn’t think Cain’s viewpoints should be broadcast, because he disagrees with him. Why else put the word “balance” in quotations? 

Far too often, the term “I’m offended” serves as a synonym for “I disagree.” This must change.

Why is NBA so bad at playoff scheduling?: The Celtics were idle this week following their first-round sweep of the Pacers, even though their second-round opponent, the Bucks, also swept their first-round opponent. The Bruins, meanwhile, will have played three playoff games before the Celtics and Bucks tip-off Sunday afternoon.

This is a minor point, but it’s ridiculous for there to be this much lag time between series. And it doesn’t get better once the games actually begin. The Celtics will host the Bucks for Game 3 next Friday night, and then not play again until Monday. 

How silly. 

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