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Louis DeLuca/Staff Photographer Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) is pictured during Cowboys NFL football playoff game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas on Sunday, January 15, 2017. (Louis DeLuca/The Dallas Morning News)
LOS ANGELES–The NFL has found itself in the middle of another domestic violence mess, and, once again, outrage is spreading across the land. Only this time, it is a different, unsettling kind of outrage.
Ezekiel Elliott, the marquee running back for football’s marquee Dallas Cowboys, has been suspended for six games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy amid allegations of domestic violence.
There was never an arrest or criminal prosecution, but there were photos of alleged abusive incidents with a former girlfriend in July 2016. There was never any video, but there were reams of testimony supported by medical experts.
There was no legal proof of anything, but the league’s investigative team compiled more than 100 exhibits in a report that exceeded 160 pages and came to the conclusion that Elliott had clearly violated the league’s broad personal conduct policy.
"There is substantial and persuasive evidence supporting a finding that (Elliott) engaged in physical violence," it said in a letter that the league sent to Elliott.
Shame on Elliott, right? Nope. The narrative across the sports landscape Friday afternoon was, shame on the NFL. The majority of talk was not about NFL players’ continued pattern of violence toward women, but about how the NFL drastically reshaped the season for those poor Dallas Cowboys.
How could they suspend a player when he wasn’t even charged with a crime? How can they suspend Giants kicker Josh Brown for one game for admittedly hitting his wife or suspend Greg Hardy four games after he was found guilty of assaulting a female, and yet dock Zeke six games for being convicted of nothing?
How could the NFL simply believe the word of former girlfriend Tiffany Thompson instead of Elliott? How could he miss more than one-third of the season — and some say potentially hurt the Cowboys’ title chances — simply because he loses a battle of "he said, she said?"
All of these questions, while pertinent to the values of the American justice system, are not relevant to the NFL. The NFL is not a public courtroom, it is a private business. The NFL makes decisions based not on any judge’s gavel, but in the best interests of its business.
Roger Goodell, the much-criticized NFL commissioner, made the right call here. Working from behind a battered NFL shield, he made a bold move to strengthen it.
Goodell saw billows of smoke and correctly determined fire. He didn’t need formal charges to show him Thompson’s cellphone photos of the alleged abuse. He didn’t need a subpoena to hear medical experts validate the nature of Thompson’s photos and testimony. And he certainly didn’t need some law to tell him of the absolute ridiculousness of Elliott’s defense.
His representatives said Thompson might have fallen down some stairs or, better yet, bumped into table while she was working as a restaurant server. Seriously? Are we still allowing our beloved athletes to skate on such excuses?
"There is a eyewitness here. The eyewitness is Tiffany Thompson herself. She is a victim and a survivor," said Peter Harvey, the former attorney general for New Jersey who helped work the league’s year-long investigation.
It isn’t like Goodell made the easy call here. This decision is like a jab to the league’s midsection. No team drives the TV ratings like the Cowboys. No owner has been more responsible for the league’s billion-dollar success than Cowboy owner Jerry Jones, who is surely steaming mad. And few players have captured the league’s imagination like Elliott, who led the league in rushing last season with 1,631 yards and scoring 15 rushing touchdowns.
For years, the NFL was accused of covering up or ignoring off-field violence — witness the Ray Rice debacle. This same league should now be applauded by risking serious dollars to bring these issues to light.
There is precedent for suspension without legal support. Remember back in 2010 when Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended four games just for being a bad guy? Heck, remember last fall when New England quarterback Tom Brady was suspended four games because Goodell thought he had cheated.
Goodell spent the season feeling the backlash of the Brady suspension, culminating when he awkwardly handed the Patriots the Lombardi Trophy after their stirring Super Bowl comeback victory.
He will feel the same heat here. Fans who despise domestic violence will rip him for benching their favorite player simply because that domestic violence is only in photos and not in a verdict. Fans who would never attempt to solve a problem with anger will criticize him for penalizing an alleged pattern of solving problems with anger.
Everybody needs to just chill. Elliott will be temporarily gone, but the Cowboys aren’t going anywhere. Their offensive line is so powerful, you could run behind it for six games. Dak Prescott is still the quarterback? And this is still a quarterback league? If the Patriots can lose Brady for a month and win a Super Bowl, the Cowboys can lose Elliott for six weeks and be just fine.
Relax. Your fantasy league will survive, while the real league just got stronger.