Can 9 seconds of video showing abuse of a dog end any NFL hopes for Baylor's Ishmael Zamora?

The Vertical
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Baylor Ishamel Zamora expressed remorse for abusing his dog, an incident caught on video. (AP)
Baylor Ishamel Zamora expressed remorse for abusing his dog, an incident caught on video. (AP)

The video of former Baylor receiver Ishmael Zamora disciplining his Rottweiler is not easy to watch. Shot last June by his roommate on what appears to be a smartphone, Zamora violently swings a leash at the dog, each blow landing with an explosive smack. Then he raises his left leg and shoves the dog with his foot. As he does this, Zamora is yelling. He looks very much like a man out of control.

No one might have known about the video had a former Baylor student, Shelby Ball, not reported it later that summer to animal control authorities in Waco, Texas, as well as to the Baylor police department. “Dogs can’t speak for themselves, I felt something had to be done,” she told Waco television station KXXV. When the station aired the video that it said it obtained exclusively, the outrage was instant.

Images of Zamora were blasted over the Internet. A flood of scorn soon followed. An online petition demanding he be kicked off Baylor’s team drew 188,188 messages of support. Newspaper columnists quoted experts who said many of those who abuse animals are also prone to domestic violence, though Zamora has never been linked to another incident. The first comment on the bottom of a Breitbart.com story about the video said he should be shot, another demanded he should be castrated, still another suggested he “should have his head cut off.”

His social media accounts filled with angry comments: “Racial things,” says Zamora, who is black. Others found his email address and threatened violence so graphic and extreme it made one person who saw them wonder about the mental stability of people who could conjure such acts against another human.

Within days, Zamora’s football career was in tatters. He was charged with a Class C misdemeanor, Baylor suspended him for the first three games of last season, ordered him to undergo counseling and said he couldn’t keep a pet for one year. Later, when he declared for the NFL draft, the league’s scouting combine refused to include him based on a policy of not inviting players who have been convicted of violence, using weapons, domestic abuse or sexual violence.

Nine seconds of a video had come to define him. While it is a hard video to watch, the nine seconds are out of context and lack clarity. They raise questions. Does he actually strike the dog? Is he trying to injure the animal? Was this a regrettable moment of anger that happened to be caught on a phone or a brutal pattern of behavior finally exposed? Social media does not do nuance well and nobody likes to see a man kicking his dog. In today’s society a viral video serves as opening statement, witness interrogation and jury deliberation all at once.

I had not heard of Zamora until the scouting combine refused to include him. Even then, I only knew of him in passing, a name attached to the more popular case of Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon, who also was not invited to the combine after a misdemeanor assault conviction for punching a woman in the head. I probably wouldn’t have given him another thought had I not spoken to Ken Herock, a former NFL general manager who runs a program preparing players for team interviews at the combine.

Herock, who describes himself as a “dog lover” and has owned the animals all his life, worked with a group that included Zamora before the combine invitations went out. Herock had seen the video in advance and was apprehensive about Zamora. But, as with all his clients, he vowed to be open minded and met Zamora alone in a room. Instantly he was impressed. The player before him was nothing like the man on the phone screen swatting and kicking at his dog. Instead, he was humble, contrite and ashamed. The more they talked the more Herock liked him.

Asked about the incident, Zamora told Herock he was frustrated that day because his dog had defecated on the living room floor before going upstairs and urinating on his roommate’s carpet. He said he was unsure how to discipline his Rottweiler and tried to scare it by smacking the door near the dog’s head.

“I felt bad for the kid,” Herock told me. “He was almost crying. He said: ‘I would never hurt that dog, he’s my baby.’ There was no B.S. with him. Believe me, I’ve been doing this a long time. [I] know when guy’s are B.S.-ing. There was no B.S. at all with this kid.”

At the end of the session, Herock wrote a report for Zamora as he does for all the players who go through his training. Among the words he wrote down were: “Smart.” “Good kid.” “I could trust him.”

“Unfortunately this is the world we live in,” Herock said. “People see one video on the Internet and they make up their mind.”

*** With Herock’s words in my mind, I arranged to speak with Zamora by phone. It appeared to be the first interview he had done in some time and he seemed nervous. Still, he did not duck questions or blame anyone else. He said he understood why people would watch the video and assume the worst about him. But he insisted it was not an accurate depiction of him.

“The people who know me know that I am not the person I was portrayed as,” he said.

Zamora said he had always had dogs as a child in Houston and got the Rottweiler while he was at Baylor. He named the dog Guwop as a play on the mysterious nickname of hip-hop artist Gucci Mane. As he explained to Herock, he was flustered that day, unsure what to do after Guwop had twice gone to the bathroom in the space of a few minutes.

He said he did not strike Guwop directly or attempt to hurt the dog, rather aiming to hit the door beside the dog, hoping the noise would frighten his Rottweiler into not having more accidents.

“There were a lot of marks on the door after that,” he told me. “That’s why it sounded so loud [on the video].”

Zamora said he realizes that people who have seen the video are going to be skeptical of his explanation. He also admitted to kicking at his dog and he said this was wrong just as the idea of trying to discipline his dog by smacking the door with a leash was wrong too. He said he had no choice but to admit his blame and endure the criticism.

He did not say why his roommate was filming him at that moment but remembers telling the roommate he “didn’t think it was a good idea” to do so. He wasn’t aware the video had been seen anywhere else until several weeks later when someone in the Baylor football office called to say campus police wanted to talk to him.

Not long after, the vicious messages filled Zamora’s social media feeds. He did not go into detail about what people posted to his Twitter and Facebook accounts beyond what he said about them being “racial.” He said he tried to stay off the accounts and stopped posting on them.

“Where I come from and the way I was raised, this was just something I had to face,” he told me.

He said he saw the stories that suggested he could potentially commit domestic violence and seemed more upset about those than the comments on the bottom of stories or in his email.

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaf/players/244251/" data-ylk="slk:Ishmael Zamora">Ishmael Zamora</a> got his dog back after the violent incident last year. He also owns another dog. (AP)
Ishmael Zamora got his dog back after the violent incident last year. He also owns another dog. (AP)

“I wouldn’t think of hitting a woman,” he said. “I grew up in a home of women, I wouldn’t even think of putting my hands on a woman or a child.”

When Zamora was 8, his father, a Colombian immigrant, went home for his mother’s funeral. A few days later, the elder Zamora tried to return to the United States only to be stopped by authorities who told him there was a problem with his paperwork. His status has been in limbo ever since, leaving Zamora’s mother to raise Ishmael and his siblings alone. He said her strength is part of what has given him the ability to focus on school and football, and ignore the threats and attacks on social media.

Since the incident he has taken dog obedience training where he has learned better ways to react in moments like the one last summer. The instructor showed him how to use treats as rewards for good behavior – something he does now with good results. Because he left Baylor for the draft he was able to get Guwop back and has since added another dog, a Cane Corso.

As part of his punishment Zamora received counseling from an anger expert at Baylor and he described this too as a positive experience though he never felt he had a problem with anger before.

“He showed me that if I felt something was angering me I could take myself out of the situation,” Zamora said.

I asked Zamora whom he relied upon the most for support at Baylor. He quickly said the team’s former strength and conditioning coach Kaz Kazadi had been his best sounding board. Kazadi, he said, was the one who told him to admit his mistakes and take responsibility. It was Kazadi, too, who constantly instructed him to keep his focus and not look at what was being said on his social media feeds.

Kazadi raved about Zamora when I called him a few days later, calling the receiver one of the team’s most dependable and likeable players; someone who always showed up on time for training sessions and worked tirelessly to get better.

“He puts the time in and he’s very moldable,” Kazadi said. “He adapts well.”

Kazadi said Zamora should be attractive to NFL teams because he is 6-foot-4 and nimble and can fight through defenders to leap and catch passes. Just as important, Kazadi said, is that Zamora is willing to block – something many receivers hate to do.

“He’s a guy who does the dirty work,” Kazadi said.

When the subject of the video came up, Kazadi sighed. He was clearly angered by the Internet attacks made on Zamora but he spoke in a measured tone, in part because it was the way he had spoken to Zamora when they worked together.

“There’s no excuse for what he did and he didn’t provide one,” Kazadi said. “He had to take ownership of the action and he understood there would be some reaction from some people. The thing I’m really proud of is when these comments got personal he did not become an evil person because of them.

“It was a really bad time for him,” Kazadi continued. “In this day of age, a mistake on video is a mistake that will last forever.”

*** Zamora, whose pro day was last Wednesday, must know that by now. His nine seconds on the Internet are an uncomfortable nine seconds. No matter what he does going forward they will always exist and he will have to explain them, realizing at the same time that many people will believe those nine seconds were a window into his soul rather than a brief moment of frustration.

As author Jon Ronson wrote about the public’s reaction to viral clips in his 2016 book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”:

“For the first time in 180 years – since the stocks and pillory were outlawed – we have the power to determine the severity of some punishments.”

To what level do Ishmael Zamora’s nine seconds of viral video rise? Do his explanations and expressions of contrition matter? He has already been judged on the Internet. Now the NFL teams who watched him run the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds and jump 40 inches Wednesday must decide if the video and the reaction to it will push him off their draft boards. He is not a top prospect, considered to be a seventh-round pick or more likely a free agent. He is easy to write off if the outside pressure gets too hot.

“Look he’s also not like Michael Vick, he’s not done anything like that,” one NFL team adviser said in reference to the brutal dog fighting ring operated by the former star quarterback.

Zamora might not be a huge prospect but there have been dozens of undrafted receivers who went on to have big careers. The fact he is 6-4, a quick learner, is willing to block and played in Baylor’s complex offense should interest teams. Someone will probably gamble on his potential realizing that along with Zamora’s ability to leap over defensive backs will come nine seconds that can never be deleted.

“When things happen in life how will you overcome it?” Zamora said when we talked.

He’s about to find out.

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