How the NFL justified Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension, and what comes next

The NFL has suspended Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott for the first six games of this season, the result of a yearlong investigation into allegations of domestic violence.

How did we get here and what happens next? Let’s take a closer look.

What exactly did Elliott do?

Perhaps the more precise question is this: What does the NFL believe he did?

OK. What does the NFL believe he did?

According to a letter NFL senior vice president B. Todd Jones sent to Elliott, the league determined that in July 2016, Elliott used physical violence “on multiple occasions” against a woman he had an “intimate relationship” with. These findings violated the NFL’s personal conduct policy, which was updated in December 2014 to allow six-game suspensions on the first offense of domestic violence. That baseline can be increased or decreased based on mitigating circumstances.

That’s the policy put in place after the Ray Rice incident?

Yes. The NFL was embarrassed when it saw the video of Rice — a Baltimore Ravens running back at the time — punching his then-fiancée while in an elevator. Prior to the video’s widespread release, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had suspended Rice only two games — the standard first-offense penalty at the time.

What sort of legal trouble is Elliott facing?

None. In September 2016, the Columbus city attorney’s office announced it would not pursue charges, citing “conflicting and inconsistent information.”

No charges? Does the NFL know more than the justice system?

Not necessarily. It does not need to meet the same legal threshold. The league employs its own investigative structure. In this case, it used an advisory panel made up of two attorneys, a retired player (Hall of Famer Ken Houston) and the CEO of The Women of Color Network (Tonya Lovelace).

The investigation yielded what the NFL found to be credible photographic and digital evidence of domestic violence. The league has the institutional right to penalize players regardless of the legal outcome.

Really? I’d like to see that in writing.

The NFL’s personal conduct policy states in part: “[E]ven if your conduct does not result in a criminal conviction, if the league finds that you have engaged in conduct [prohibited by the policy], you will be subject to discipline.”

So the NFL Players Association is OK with this?

It apparently raised concerns during the investigation, but there really is no getting around the policy as it’s written. Plus, the union must walk a fine line between defending its members and maintaining its opposition to domestic violence. But the NFLPA, and Elliott’s representatives, will look closely at the execution of the policy in this case to determine whether the NFL remained within its rights.

What about the accuser? How does the NFL know she is telling the truth? How does the NFL know that Elliott caused the injuries in the photographs?

In his letter, Jones acknowledged the concerns expressed by Elliott’s representatives about the credibility of the accuser and “alternative causation.” However, Jones wrote, “there has been no persuasive evidence presented on your behalf with respect to how [the accuser’s] obvious injuries were incurred other than the conjecture based on the presence of some of her bruising which pre-dates your arrival.”

“No persuasive evidence presented on your behalf.”

Yes. This line speaks to the NFL’s lower threshold for discipline relative to the legal system. The city attorney cited “conflicting” information in deciding not to press charges. The NFL said Elliott didn’t provide evidence to support a different explanation. In other words, Elliott was unable to prove his innocence. In court, he would have to be proven guilty. This is an issue that has arisen frequently in NFL discipline.

What is Elliott saying about this?

His attorneys released a statement saying that the NFL’s findings are “replete with factual inaccuracies and erroneous conclusions.” The attorneys also said the accuser was “lying” about one of the incidents.

Wasn’t Elliott also involved in some kind of incident in March?

Yes. According to the NFL, Elliott pulled down the shirt of a woman, exposing and touching her breast, while watching a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dallas. “This incident was captured on video and posted on social media,” the league said in its letter to Elliott. The letter said the incident was “inappropriate” and “disturbing” and “reflected a lack of respect for women.”

Can Elliott appeal this decision?

Absolutely. He has three business days to file it, and the appeal will be heard either by Goodell or by a designated representative. As ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported, retired NFL executive Harold Henderson has often filled this role. The arbitrator, be it Goodell, Henderson or someone else, is obligated to provide a ruling within 10 days.

So Elliott should get an answer before Week 1?

Yes.

Does he have any chance to win?

Based on the details contained in the letter, the NFL appears to have compiled an extensive amount of physical evidence. You can infer its confidence via the decision to suspend him for six games, when for many other players it has utilized the “mitigating factors” language to issue suspensions of one, two or four games. The pattern imposed by the St. Patrick’s Day incident also played a role in maintaining the six-game baseline.

It’s worth noting that the direct and accusatory tone of the attorneys’ statement suggested consideration of more than a simple appeal, including possible legal action against the league.

Didn’t Josh Brown, the former New York Giants place-kicker, get a one-game suspension last year for domestic violence?

Yes, a reflection of the NFL’s determination not to follow a one-size-fits-all policy.

So what happens to Elliott if the discipline stands under appeal?

He can return as soon as the Cowboys’ seventh game. But if he is found to be guilty of another violation, the NFL can suspend him indefinitely, according to the policy.

It seems that the NFL is constantly roiled by discipline stories.

Indeed. At this time last year, the New England Patriots were preparing for quarterback Tom Brady‘s four-game suspension. This makes two years in a row where arguably the biggest story entering the season involves the suspension of a star player — albeit under significantly different circumstances. (Brady was suspended for his role in the incident that led to the “Deflategate” investigation.)

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is arguably the most powerful man in the NFL. Will he do anything about this?

You never know. Jones said last month that he had seen no evidence of domestic violence in the incidents described. He might find sympathy from some other powerful owners, notably the Patriots’ Robert Kraft, who have also vehemently disagreed with NFL discipline in recent years. Kraft and New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson (Bountygate) can make room for him at their table of protest.

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