B6B: On Jeffery Simmons and Media Nuance

By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – April 27, 2019)


“I take full responsibility for my actions that occurred on Thursday evening. My apology goes out to the Taylor family and especially to Sophia Taylor. What was I thinking? Honestly, I wasn’t thinking. All I could think was this is my family, and I am supposed to defend my family.”

The above was the original statement from Jeffery Simmons in 2016 that has since been deleted from his Facebook account, and it’s surprising we didn’t see it on cable TV, complete with ominous bed music Thursday night, when the Tennessee Titans selected the Mississippi State defensive tackle with the 19th overall selection in the NFL Draft. I hadn’t entirely planned to write on Simmons, but with everything surrounding the pick, the reaction to it, and the coverage of it, it felt prudent to do so.

First, it’s relatively stunning that the ACL injury from earlier this year was barely mentioned on the “A broadcast” for ESPN. It was such a secondary story, when in fact, it was the knee and the health concerns that had been local media focus in the lead-up to the Draft. We’re in a difficult spot here, because we’re limited by what information we have, and more importantly the details we may lack. What made the choice even more treacherous for the Titans, whether they cared or considered it or not, was the Tyreek Hill audio recording that became public mere hours before the event began.

These are two vastly different people, the circumstances weren’t the same, but it’s easy to apply the same mentality to both. Tyreek Hill assaulted and choked his pregnant girlfriend in vile, reprehensible fashion, and he was booted out of Oklahoma State. He ended up playing at the University of West Alabama in the Gulf South Conference of Division II. But, his nickname was “Cheetah” because of his speed. He had unbelievable natural ability. When that’s true, much can be overlooked. The Kansas City Chiefs, amid controversy, couldn’t pass him up, and then-GM John Dorsey took him in the fifth round.

As for Simmons, his mistake is on video and we’ve all seen it. It’s tough to watch a gigantic human male repeatedly strike a small female. It’s not okay. It makes us cringe and we know, even if we’ve never been told, that it’s wrong on a major level. There are varying reports as to the background of the incident, but generally, the woman was in an altercation with Simmons’ mother and sister and had been involved in long-standing bad blood with the pair for quite some time. The issue comes after Jeffery isn’t able to maintain his calm. He originally steps in and separates the ladies, which is logical and protective of his family. But, then come the punches to the victim, a woman who is down on the ground and basically defenseless.

These are two standout, stud-level pro prospects, with Hill obviously becoming a household name and many believing Simmons to have top five talent in the 2019 Draft. On Friday, NFL Films’ Greg Cosell told Mark Howard, Blaine Bishop, and Kevin Ingram that Jeffery’s tape was more impressive than Alabama’s Quinnen Williams, who went third overall to the New York Jets. Williams was routinely, along with Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, termed the best player in the 2019 class. I’m eliminating the ACL in this discussion, because he can’t dominate on the field if he can’t stand up on the field or run on the field or push on the field or rush on the field. That’s beyond debate. This is all presuming he returns from the injury, and while that’s certainly not assured, an ACL tear isn’t exactly the death sentence it used to be. Guys do come back from it.

The concern with Simmons from a character perspective is that every positive story you’ve heard or read about him sounds an awful lot like all the good things we heard about Tyreek Hill following his incident. I had someone inside ESPN contact me on Friday just to say internally, everybody THERE vouches for Simmons and believes him to be a stand-up guy. This was in reference to a series of tweets I wrote regarding Trey Wingo (who, even though I disagree with his work here, is both talented and professional) and how the ESPN crew on the telecast the vast majority of the country watches most handled Jeffery Simmons the second he was drafted to the Titans.

Back to Hill, he did everything right. He did charity work, community service, went through every court-ordered counseling session, in public gushed about his family and especially his son (the one his then girlfriend was pregnant with when he punched her in the stomach), and Chiefs personnel, up to and including John Dorsey, said he had been a model citizen since. When he was drafted in 2016, Dorsey, who also drafted Kareem Hunt AND just offered him a second chance in Cleveland, spoke to the media about the decision to draft Hill. Here is an excerpt from a Terez Paylor article, at the time a reporter for the Kansas City Star:

“I just want everybody to understand that we have done our due diligence with regards to full vetting each one of our draft-class members,” said Dorsey, who added that he had “long discussions” with Reid and Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt before making the selection. “We would never put anybody in this community in harm’s way.”

Reid agreed, reiterating that the organization has “done its homework” on Hill and asking fans to essentially give them the benefit of the doubt, since they say they can’t publicly discuss whatever details they were able to dig up about Hill’s case.

“There has to be a certain trust here, but there’s just things that we can’t go into and go through,” Reid said. “We want people to understand, like Dorse said, we’re not going to do anything to put this community or this organization in a bind.

“We uncovered every possible stone that we possibly could, and we feel very comfortable with that part of it.”

We love redemption stories and we believe in second chances. John Dorsey offered one to Tyreek Hill in 2016, and it worked, for a time, but if and when the newly discovered and released audio is authenticated, there’s a good chance he will never play another down in the NFL. So, it’s fair to ask the question as to the degree of risk the Titans are assuming in selecting Jeffery Simmons the PERSON, not the healthy, potentially phenomenal player.

However, ESPN’s act on Thursday night was a borderline hit job on a young man that deserves, at the very least, nuance in the discussion of his past and present. Trey Wingo, from the second Roger Goodell got the word “Simmons” out of his mouth and said “Mississippi State,” was ready to fire. He went Mike Wallace, he went Diane Sawyer, and tried unsuccessfully to channel George Clooney as Edward R. Murrow. Immediately after the pick, Wingo jumped to how, “We have to have a conversation about Jeffery Simmons.” Okay, let’s talk about the injury and mention the incident and then talk about his talent as well.

Nope, Wingo was on camera in a one-shot, none of the other analysts were shown, and went full-on news anchor and began laying out the case. He did it in a very Chris Rock fashion, and by that I mean the famous Bring the Pain, “I’m not saying he should have killed her, but I understand” joke about OJ Simpson. It was a walking caveat, which works in an edgy comedy bit, but not so much when we’re talking about a young man’s future. This was, “So here are the facts, and I need to tell you that (insert positive thing here) but also (reiterate the facts). He achieved a 4.0 GPA his first semester in Starkville and maintained a solid academic record at Mississippi State. Trey did touch on it, but not with particular enthusiasm. And, it was all bookended around constant, “Now we must tell you…” phraseology. He said some good things, but the tone and tenor of the piece was relentlessly framed to make this an entertaining, controversial segment.

It was, in some respects, the journalism equivalent of a backhanded compliment or some version of couched passive aggressive narration for the sake of being compelling.

ESPN also played the Simmons video after Wingo mentioned multiple times that it was disturbing, which wasn’t wrong, but I would question why it needed to be played. Clearly, the network had it ready to go, because this entire segment of the Draft coverage felt very planned, like a timed missile strike. To their credit, both Louis Riddick and Booger McFarland tried to talk about the football side, with the latter very directly stating that everyone he knows at Mississippi State and in the SEC on all levels believes in Jeffery Simmons and would go to the mat to defend his character and what a good young man he was. How difficult would it have been to find quotes like this one I grabbed from Saturday Down South to balance the conversation?

Now, several years later, you look at him, the type of career he has not just as a football player, his impact on the community, the type of success he’s had in the classroom and the type of person he is in the classroom, I think a lot of people look back and say, ‘Hey, I think we made the right decision by giving him the opportunity to go to Mississippi State.Dan Mullen

On Friday afternoon, Jeffery Simmons spoke to the media alongside Titans GM Jon Robinson, head coach Mike Vrabel, and owner Amy Adams-Strunk. He was spectacular, he was real, he was emotional, and he sounded the part in every way. But, perhaps more amazing was a point ESPN didn’t even consider on Thursday night that would have been rather newsworthy in its own right. Simmons’ mistake was a big one to be sure. He struck a defenseless woman repeatedly three years ago after reacting poorly amidst an altercation between the victim and his family. But, there is exactly ONE female owner in the NFL, and it was her that signed off on Jeffery Simmons, said she trusted him, and offered him the opportunity to become a Tennessee Titan.

Might I ask how, in the tunnel vision that was ESPN’s decision-making related to Simmons, the one female owner in the NFL saying “yes” to him escaped their gaze? What responsibility does the media have to try and flatten out the figurative seesaw in covering a story like this one?

I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the past month talking about redemption and how one’s station in life today has nothing to do with one’s station in life next year or further down the road. We’ve seen several recent examples, with my larger point being the way to overcome failure or hardship is to accept it, to own it, to learn from it, and not to ignore it, excuse it, or run from it. Virginia just won the National Championship 12 months after being the first top seed to lose to a 16 in NCAA Tournament History. Tiger Woods just won his fifth Green Jacket after an indescribable comeback, dealing with injuries, scorn, shame, and mortality.

The way in which ESPN approached Simmons after the pick offered him no reprieve and no room to breathe. It served more vilify him or cast aspersions and took part of his story – an important part, but just a part – and made it the singular focus. We saw virtually no highlights, no breakdown, because for whatever reason, somebody decided to go in another direction. As a result, Titans fans, Mississippi State fans, and even some neutral observers balked at what they saw on TV. It’s the main reason I chose to write this article.

I’m not here to defend Jeffery Simmons because I don’t know Jeffery Simmons. I know what you know. I’ve heard what you’ve heard. I saw the press conference and listened to his words just as you did. I look forward to covering him, but under my own name, I’m here to say not only am I pulling for Simmons, but I’m praying for him and I’m giving him the benefit of every doubt. He made a terrible mistake, but he has never excused it away. He has owned it every step of the way, up to and including Friday afternoon.

And, while it’s complicated, and while any discussion of Simmons at this juncture has to include a fair analysis and reaction to the worst day of the 6’4 310 pounder’s life, it’s irresponsible and more than mildly problematic to harp on it and just close the book on him forever. Booger was the one that really kept the coverage from being far worse. You don’t give up on people after strike one except in the most egregious situations. Here’s more from Dan Mullen in the SDS interview from 2018:

When (Simmons) came on campus, we had been recruiting him for a long time. I knew the type of person he was. Anytime something like that happens, one, you know the background because you’ve been recruiting him for so long. You know all about the prospect. You investigate the whole thing and what happened, so you have a lot of knowledge.

More than maybe just a lot of people that look and read a headline or a hit and they want to make their opinion on whatever the blog or whatever it is they read about it. They look at that and want to form their final opinion off of just that. You have to really investigate everything that went on in the situation and his background and knowing all about him and who he was.

My objection with ESPN in this specific instance is they simply did not have the time to present Jeffery Simmons in a well-rounded manner, so the intelligent move needed to be bullet-point the ACL and the incident and talk about the football player. Instead, it was INCIDENT INCIDENT INCIDENT… oh he’s also got a torn ACL and he could be really good. It felt gratuitous and overwrought, pedantic and nearly obnoxious. I like Trey Wingo. I just think he got this one badly wrong. This wasn’t Outside the Lines. This was a chaotic first night of the NFL Draft where everybody’s brain is moving in 25 directions. It wasn’t the time and it wasn’t the forum to do it completely or properly.

Jeffery Simmons did a video for Mississippi State social media that I’ll include at the bottom of this piece. But, in it, quoted in the SDS article as well, he said the following: Many people don’t get a second opportunity in life. From the time I stepped on campus up to now, I’ve been holding my word to the A.D., like I told him I would.

Boy, that sounds quite a bit like what we heard on Friday afternoon, doesn’t it? If you saw the video of the phone call that changed Simmons life, tweeted out by the Titans, you heard Jeffery say, “I won’t let you down.” He said that several times during the press conference as well. He knows, better than any of us, better than ESPN, how many eyes are on him waiting for him to make another mistake. He knows the responsibility he carries and he knows he has to walk it, not just talk it. He’s apologized over and over again, but some people will never let him off the proverbial hook for the assault.

Me personally, I’m rooting for him. I’m a fan of his. He has a second chance and I want to see him make the most of it. He might screw up again. You know what? I might screw up again sometime too. We’re all flawed. We’re all in desperate need of grace and forgiveness. I want Trey Wingo in 2021 to be talking about what a steal the Titans got at 19 as a person and a talent. I think Trey would want the same. This wasn’t malicious. It was just…bad.

Simmons said near the end of the press availability what his goals are. So I’ll say the same two words. Go and “ball out” young man. 2016 was part of your story. But there’s a lot more of this book to be written.

Titans fans hope it’s a real page-turner.

And, because virtually no one on TV did on Thursday night, congratulations Jeffery…and best of luck.

Here’s the October video on Simmons from Mississippi State…

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