Ezekiel Elliott will not be in AT&T Stadium on Sunday night for the Cowboys game against the Eagles. In fact, according to those close to the running back, he won’t even be in the United States, as he opts to serve the remainder of his six-game suspension from the NFL someplace where he can work out in peace to prepare for his Dec. 24 return.
Elliott is out of work because commissioner Roger Goodell came to a conclusion that could not be reached by the Prosecutor’s Division of the Franklin County (Ohio) Municipal Court: that Elliott physically abused a former girlfriend on several occasions in 2016.
The city attorney for Columbus, Ohio, thought there was “conflicting information” that resulted from his investigation of the allegations. There was evidence that supported the allegations and evidence that cast doubt upon them. In other words, he didn’t think he had a case that could meet the standard of reasonable doubt.
For better or worse, that’s the criminal justice system in our country, and anyone who wasn’t present for the alleged incidents cannot say for sure if the system got it right or wrong in this case. Except Roger Goodell, of course.
From the standpoint of something as vitally important as a football game, the decision to suspend Elliott – and to pursue the right to levy that suspension through the court system – is a boon for the Eagles. It deprives the Dallas offense of a major weapon and makes it more likely the Eagles will leave Arlington, Texas, with a nearly unbreakable stranglehold on the NFC East.
From the standpoint of actual justice, and not just discipline for the sake of appearance, there’s something unsettling about any workplace that sets up a shadow criminal justice system in which a worker can be subjected to what amounts to double jeopardy. The league’s contention is that the collective bargaining agreement gives the NFL great latitude in which to mete out discipline, which it does. But does it also supersede a player’s constitutional right to due process?
“I don’t know that they have the right to do that,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said. “In fairness, I don’t think we have all the information in a lot of the cases, but in terms of most things, I feel like if the criminal justice system absolves you of wrongdoing, that would be the end of it. That’s what it’s there for, right?”
Well, yes. And while the NFL bureaucracy is very good at running a football league and negotiating contracts and putting together rights packages and the like, that doesn’t mean it is an investigatory body capable of picking its way to the truth through a thicket of “conflicting information.”
“The problem with the league when it comes to player discipline is that it’s usually reactionary,” said safety Malcolm Jenkins, the Eagles’ representative to the players association. “It’s usually based on public relations as opposed to the actual offense. That’s why you have disproportionate punishments. Ray Rice gets two weeks the first time and then the video came out and fans saw it, and it became a public relations disaster, and he got kicked out of the league. I’m not saying that was wrong, but it was just a reaction to the fan base. It’s all about public perception.”
Just to be clear, Elliott is a real beauty and there’s no doubt the league found what it called “substantial and persuasive evidence” that the allegations made by Tiffany Thompson were accurate. The running back was also involved in a bar altercation before training camp this season and, earlier in the year, pulled down the top of a woman’s blouse at a St. Patrick’s Day party. He’s that guy.
It’s also true that witnesses said Thompson promised Elliott after they broke up that she would “ruin his career,” and that league investigator Kia Roberts, the only NFL employee to interview Thompson, doubted her credibility and recommended against a suspension for Elliott.
All true. Both sides of the story are documented, and while the criminal justice system punted, the NFL went for it. At least Goodell did, and he is the league’s judge and jury.
“I understand some situations where they have to put their foot down,” Eagles receiver Torrey Smith said, “but if you have that type of [disciplinary] system, there have to be more people involved in terms of decision-making. If you’re in a profession that’s [in the] public and they’re trying to protect the league, is it right? I don’t know.”
If the league is a safer place for advertisers and sponsors to invest their money because Ezekiel Elliott isn’t playing Sunday night, then Goodell probably believes he has done his job. The troubling part is that he has also taken on the job of the city attorney for Columbus, who was probably better trained for that position than the football commissioner.
That doesn’t mean, in this particular case, that Goodell wasn’t right. Maybe he was. It just means that, in this country, we have people responsible for getting it right, and answering to someone aside from Budweiser, and Roger Goodell isn’t one of them.