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College Football Should Focus More On Off-Field Events, Commentator Says

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The college football season came to a thrilling end this week, especially for Clemson fans. And the NFL playoffs promise more thrills ahead. But commentator Sarah Spain says the sport needs to turn its focus more to what's happening off the field.

SARAH SPAIN: It's been nearly three years since the arrest of Ray Rice. Security camera footage of the Ravens running back knocking out his then-fiancee forced the country to see in black and white the brutal reality of domestic violence. Back in 2014, many fans, coaches, players and media needed to be educated on the very basic idea that domestic violence isn't, quote, unquote, "between a man and wife" or a "family issue," it's a serious crime. Meantime, the NFL's well-publicized mishandling of Rice's suspension forced other leagues to take a hard look at their own policies on violence against women - or lack thereof - and make important changes.

In the NCAA, there are no explicit violence policies. The onus is put on individual universities to police student-athletes. Which brings us to Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon. This past November, the public saw for the first time a two-and-a-half-year-old security video in which Mixon punched a young woman, breaking her face in four places. Once again, visual proof was required for the public to truly understand the brutality of the offense, but at least this time the outrage was immediate. No one needed to be taught the seriousness of violence against women. Mixon was suspended for his entire freshman season after the assault, but kept on scholarship with his spot on the team waiting for him. He played the last two seasons under relatively limited scrutiny, shielded from media, that is until the video was released.

Years later, finally forced to fully address the issue, Mixon held a brief press conference. A week-and-a-half later, he was celebrated for his play in a high-profile bowl game and then declared for the NFL draft. Debate rages over whether Mixon should have been given a second chance, whether it's fair to rehash the incident again years later, and how he'll be viewed by prospective NFL teams. It seems years after Ray Rice, we still haven't figured out collectively the best way to deal with the issue of violence against women. Here's what I think. Right now, teams and schools are punishing for the sake of PR, to save face and sponsors. The goal instead needs to be to get to the root of the violence and ensure that athletes committing these crimes won't do it again.

If we believe these athletes do deserve a second chance, then we have to demand more transparency. Clear-cut expectations of treatment, therapy and progress. Open communication with and about the abuser. Honest conversation from coaches and higher-ups about why they believe enough progress has been made for the athlete to earn back the right to play. Transparency is also the only way to satisfy the needs of fans who don't want to feel guilty or compromised by their fandom. Whoever drafts or signs Mixon, it'll be that team's job to convince fans that a change has occurred. Now that we've got the outrage part down, it's time to take the next step.

MARTIN: That was commentator Sarah Spain. She's an ESPN sportscaster from Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.