In a year in which the collective dialogue on violence against women, domestic violence and sexual violence has supposedly evolved, the latest incident out of college football makes clear just how very far up the ladder we still have to climb.
A little over two months ago, Jeffery Simmons, a highly sought-after, 275-pound, five-star recruit, was caught on tape beating a woman in broad daylight. The woman was on the ground, and with onlookers surrounding them, the Mississippi State-bound Simmons punched her multiple times, connecting with her head and upper body.
Simmons was apparently interceding in a fight between the woman and his sister, after the former, according to Simmons, made derogatory comments about his deceased nephews.
As a result of his actions ― for striking a woman, then striking her again and again ― the Mississippi State football program announced last week that it was suspending its incoming star freshman for one game.
Discussing that choice to let Simmons remain on the roster, director of athletics Scott Stricklin stated last week that “five seconds of a really poor choice shouldn’t preclude an individual from going to school.”
Of course, “five seconds” is more than enough time for a 6-foot-4, 275-pound man to inflict serious harm on another person. “Five seconds” is more than enough time for someone’s life to change -- for him or her to experience debilitating damage, physical or otherwise.
Inevitably, Stricklin’s statement on the single-game suspension came off as defensive, as he finagled his presentation of the situation to make it appear as if Mississippi State was going beyond the call of duty when it benched its rookie for 60 whole minutes.
"It's a highly unique circumstance to administer discipline to a student for an incident that occurred prior to that individual joining our university," Stricklin said.
Stricklin went on to explicitly underscore that Simmons wasn’t under the surveillance of the Bulldogs’ program at the time of the incident -- as if that absolved any of the blame.
Tellingly enough, we’ve grown accustomed to these storylines. We know how it goes at this point. Player does wrong. Player receives slap on the wrist. Player publicly apologizes for his regrettable actions. Player returns to the field, the court, the pitch, wherever.
But this year was supposed to be one of progress for issues of off-field violence in the sports world. After all, we all banded together against Greg Hardy last fall: We saw those photos showing the bruises Hardy reportedly caused on ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder. We all nodded along as he became increasingly isolated, evermore alienated, in the NFL -- and we approved, knowing that it served him right for getting off lightly for his (reported) abuse.
And then came these past few weeks, when the Baylor football program was set alight as damning reports surfaced about the administration and coaching staff’s treatment of sexual assault allegations. Thank goodness the men that handled those accusations are no longer in charge, we said. Karma strikes again! we tweeted.
So maybe that’s why Simmons’ one-game suspension seems so off-key. With the background of supposed steps forward in the NCAA, the Bulldogs’ disciplinary decision seems to hit a false note -- to harken back to those ancient times pre-2014, pre-Ray Rice, when we weren’t as enlightened about violence on women, regardless of whether that violence took place between two partners or two strangers.
How much of a miss was this suspension? Even a prospective Mississippi State player, three-star cornerback D.J. Brown, shook his head at its lack of bite.
“Domestic abuse isn’t something to play with,” Brown, who committed to Penn State but is still being recruited by the Bulldogs, said to SEC Country this weekend. “I think he should have been suspended a little bit longer than just a game.”
“I would say [he should have been suspended] at least two games because hitting a woman, that’s not cool right there,” he added. “It’s different from not going to class. Hitting a woman is something serious. You can go to jail for that.”
That’s coming from a current high schooler, who, if he does end up choosing Mississippi State, will have to walk into the Bulldogs’ locker room and face Simmons eye-to-eye. Even he thinks the situation is so black and white, that the right and wrong here is so glaring, so self-evident, that’s he’s willing to go on the record with his opinion, as unpopular among teammates as it may be.
A high schooler understands that. So why doesn’t Mississippi State?
When athletic director Stricklin faced the media scrum late last week after detailing the suspension, there was one moment that stood out -- one in which Stricklin showed a surprising amount of transparency. He was asked, "How much of a consideration is it that if you cut [Simmons] loose, someone picks him up tomorrow?"
And he answered honestly.
"I think that thought crosses your mind."
There’s not much more to say than that -- a revealing, resounding, if reluctant, admission that on-field results and inner-conference rivalries can trump ethical niceties and moral compasses when you’re dealing with an athlete and a program of this caliber.
A chilling admission, a worrying decision and a problem with no ostensible solution in sight.