Scott Stricklin sat down in a chair the open end of a horseshoe-shaped meeting table.
With plenty of eyes staring directly at him, Stricklin, Mississippi State’s athletic director, knew what was coming.
He was set to receive a barrage of questions – some of which were (rightfully) accusatory and blunt – as to why he, Mississippi State’s athletic program and the university would allow defensive end Jeffery Simmons to enroll in campus and serve only a one-game suspension following his March arrest for simple assault and disturbing the peace.
Those misdemeanors don’t seem too egregious on face value. But then you take into account that Simmons was videoed punching a woman, while she was on the ground, repetitively in the face. Former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice is no longer in the NFL because of a video that surfaced showing him knocking his wife, then his fiancée, out cold in a casino elevator.
So how does Simmons still earn admission to Mississippi State and earn only a one-game suspension for a game he may not play in anyway?
Stricklin faced a concerned group of reporters to try and explain.
"It wasn’t a domestic or sexual assault type of issue," Stricklin said. "If this person would have had a history, I think that’s something you look at. I think you’re trying to be fair to the young person and understand they made a mistake. There have to be consequences."
Stricklin said he and other Mississippi State officials spent a considerable time talking to people in Simmons’ hometown of Macon, Mississippi. There were no other instances with law enforcement. His school disciplinary record came back clean. Stricklin called Simmons a “docile young man” at the surface level.
Stricklin seems convinced Simmons won’t wind up doing anything similar while on campus at Mississippi State. But then again, Jonathan Taylor was charged with a domestic violence incident at Georgia, only to have another one emerge at Alabama during his second chance at SEC football. The worry of another incident occurring with Simmons is alarming, considering the behavior displayed on the video that went viral.
"There are 350 student-athletes in 16 sports," Stricklin said. "They’re young people. Sometimes they’re going to make mistakes. There was nothing else besides this incident that brought me concern. That’s all I can say."
But Mississippi State could enter some dangerous legal territory if Simmons does in fact commit any kind of assault on campus. Given his history, Mississippi State could be open for a lawsuit if Simmons lays a hand on anyone. Considering he was still allowed to enroll at the university, the university could be liable. If he lays a hand on a woman? You’re talking about significant damages Mississippi State could be held accountable for.
And that’s a conversation Stricklin admits has been had.
Part of Simmons’ punishment is that he must undergo counseling, which has yet to be decided if it will occur on campus or through an outside group. Stricklin also said he’ll listen to what’s recommended by whoever counsels him and that the one-game suspension isn’t finite since whatever is determined from those counseling sessions could change things.
"Which is why it’s important we have a complete understanding of what his risk factors really are," Stricklin said. "I have a surface understanding. On the surface, I don’t think he’ll have any issues. But I want somebody who’s a professional and trained in this area to tell me that also."
Stricklin, Mississippi State and the SEC are in a predicament. The SEC is set to expand its serious misconduct policy for transfers to include dating violence, stalking and pleading guilty to felonies of similar crimes. But nothing is changing when it comes to incoming freshmen. That’s part of the reason why Simmons is allowed to still enroll at Mississippi State.
Another reason, Stricklin says, is due to the fact that this incident may not fall under the policy even if he was a transfer. This is not considered a domestic violence incident with Simmons being charged with two misdemeanors. So even though it’s violence committed by a man on a woman, there could potentially be a way out of the conference’s policy even if Simmons was a transfer student.
The punishment doesn’t appear to fit the crime, even if the situation can be considered unique. At the end of the day, the one-game suspension for punching a woman in the face is only two quarters longer than a player called for a targeting penalty.
To Stricklin’s credit, he didn’t hide from the issue. He walked down to the media workroom at the Hilton Sandestin Resort, unbeknownst to some reporters, to allow them to question this decision. He took plenty of heat and will continue to do so for what his athletic department has chosen to do.
"Is this a young person who deserves to be treated a certain way when there’s a second opportunity?" Stricklin said. "Again, I understand the debate."