There’s something fishy going on in the NFL. Okay, maybe that’s not the most surprising thing you’ve ever read – about as shocking as revealing that Tom Brady is good at throwing footballs or that Eddie Lacy ordered the second course – but even by the NFL’s lofty standards, this is an odd one.
Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was suspended for domestic assault by the league recently, meaning he’ll miss the first six games of the season. Six games, damn. That’s three times as long as Ray Rice got (pre- the leaking of the elevator vid) so you know he must’ve done something disgusting.
Of course it’s more complicated than that. If you want the account of the accusations then best look elsewhere, there are some thorough readings of the police reports out there that paint the picture fairly well. Elliott probably had an abusive relationship – at least one that developed into one which included choking, excessive force and plenty of verbal lines crossed. However there’s also a lot of murkiness about the culminating event that ended up with the police where multiple witnesses have denied what was accused. That particular case was thrown out by the legal system for that exact reason: conflicting witness reports.
Now, six games is the default ban for domestic abuse. I used the Ray Rice comparison before for effect but that complete and utter embarrassment caused Roger Goodell and the NFL to adopt a tougher stance on these issues. Particularly when it came to investigating them too, seeing as the worst thing they did with Ray Rice was to stop short of seeking out the video and then suffer the humiliation of having it leaked online – exposing their disgrace of an initial punishment.
Elliott has been under investigation for quite a while now. The NFL’s report ended up over 160 pages long and the whole thing took over a year – with reminders of its ongoing status scattered along the way. Why did it take so long? Eh, it’s the NFL, mate. Since they’re employers with behaviour clauses in the contracts they give, they don’t have to play by the same rules as the courts do which is why the police investigation going nowhere is irrelevant. However they do have to be bloody careful with the collective bargaining side of things and that’s where this gets really strange.
The NFL announced the suspension, Elliott and his team announced their intention to appeal it. Part of that, sadly, involves discrediting the victim and that’s where text messages she sent to a friend threatening to blackmail Elliott over an alleged sex tape she owned or encouraging a friend to lie to police about the incident or her threatening several times to ruin his career have come to light… although these things are in the NFL’s report too.
Next thing you know the NFL’s executive vice president of communications, Joe Lockhart, is putting out a statement in which he accuses the NFL Players Association of “spreading derogatory information to the media” about Elliott’s ex. Actions he calls “shameful”. To which the NFLPA replied in their own counter-statement:
“The public statement issued on behalf of every NFL owner is a lie. The NFLPA categorically denies the accusations made in this statement. We know the League office has a history of being exposed for its lack of credibility. This is another example of the NFL's hypocrisy on display and an attempt to create a sideshow to distract from their own failings in dealing with such serious issues. They should be ashamed for stooping to new lows.”
When the NFL and its Players Association are going head to head like that, in such blunt terms, something is clearly not right between them. The League and the Players are taking shots like Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un; nobody comes away from that looking good.
Part of the drama here – especially the outrage over the suspension – is down to the fact that so few people have read the report before commenting on it. As a Cowboys fan, my experience of it all has kinda mirrored that; beginning with outrage at the heftiness of the suspension for an incident that saw zero legal repercussions and which appeared based on… shall we say tenuous evidence. If not completely exaggerated then very much cherry-picked (which is a term Elliott’s legal team also used over the NFL’s decision).
Of course, that makes this sound like an isolated incident and reading further up on this it’s clear that it definitely was not. The incident that made it to the police was weak but the allegations over the previous months are not. Images of her bruises match the claims, descriptions of them match their behaviour patterns. Elliott seems like a fun, enjoyable chap in public (although pulling down a woman’s shirt at a St Patrick’s Day party was clearly a step too far) but this had to have been a toxic relationship and his actions were disgraceful. Not as bad as the crimes committed by Ray Rice or Greg Hardy, but that’s not important. Any violence towards women – any violence at all – is unacceptable. That she probably wasn’t the most pleasant person is irrelevant once you cross that violent line.
I’m not 100% on how the fact that some of this stuff happened before he was drafted into the NFL matters but their relationship lasted a few more months (and the bad stuff mostly came at the end, naturally) so it probably doesn’t.
What does matter is the NFL’s terrible reputation for dealing with any issues regarding women – from equality to violence – and Roger Goodell’s extremely inconsistent record with suspensions. This six-game minimum for domestic violence is three years old and yet it’s barely ever been enforced. Every investigation of theirs happens in relation to the last mess they made. After not being methodical enough in the past, now they’ve spent 13 months compiling something substantial. After Roger Goodell made himself judge, jury and executioner for the Ray Rice thing, he’s tried to take a step back on this one. In fact he hired a panel of outsiders to conduct things… and then he still decided on the ban himself but whatever.
It’s all about the process and the more erratic it is, the less people can trust it. Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson’s high profile suspensions recently? Both involved big ol’ appeals and this is no different. In fact Brady’s appeal was all based on that process itself, corruption within the investigation and all that. (It’s a tricky thing taking a collective bargaining agreement to court, by the way – they have unique legal parameters so attacking the process was Brady’s best bet).
In the end, it’s not about punishment. It’s about change. When people clamour for justice it’s often misperceived as retribution and that can be a very different thing. Elliott and his accuser are both very young and both probably filled with regrets – the NFL have to look at their suspension as an incitement for him to evolve into a better person, which you’d imagine he will as he matures. At least you’d hope so. It does seem there’s a pattern of behaviour there but that was also within a relationship which has since ended.
By the way the NFL also investigated the St Patty’s Day thing although the woman filed no charges. That one was cleared but with a warning about his “poor judgement and behaviour”. Fair enough too, he should be embarrassed by that even if it didn’t end up causing any harm. Hardly the impression of yourself you wanna emit when this investigation is hanging over you.
Which is where we come to debates about whether a six-game ban is too much for someone who, with the benefit of the doubt, doesn’t hold any future danger to society. Gotta do something to make sure he knows not to fall into the same patterns again but six games is a lot for a first offence.
Well, frankly that’s where the inconsistent NFL once again come into the spotlight. The six-game ban is acceptable if they truly do treat it as the benchmark. However if some Jerry Reserve Player goes and does the same thing and gets away without a 13-month investigation then the impression is gonna be that the NFL made an example of the star running back of the Dallas Cowboys… which in that case they would have done. Remember that it was their public image which forced Goodell’s hands over Ray Rice and it’s public image that’s seen them try tighten up those bolts since. Here is our first major example. The second example will be where the precedent is either upheld or strewn amongst the trash heap.
When you think of it that way there’s a lot on the line.
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