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Ezekiel Elliott’s Suspension and the Bureaucratic Nightmare of the NFL

Five thoughts in the aftermath of a disturbing case at the intersection of football’s greatest fears, including what it could mean for Roger Goodell, Jerry Jones, and the league at large

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This morning, Roger Goodell suspended Ezekiel Elliott for six games after an investigation into accusations of domestic violence made in 2016. A few thoughts:

1. Here’s how the NFL came to the decision.

In a letter to Elliott, NFL executive B. Todd Jones writes that the league found “substantial and persuasive evidence” that Elliott used physical force on Tiffany Thompson, with whom he was in a relationship, during a five-day stretch in the summer of 2016. Jones cites photographs taken of Thompson’s injuries and the testimony of medical experts consulted by the league. He also quotes a Columbus, Ohio, prosecutor, who declined to bring charges against Elliott: “[w]e never concluded that she was lying to us.”

It’s clear from the letter that Elliott’s camp challenged Thompson’s credibility. (One affidavit in the case accused Thompson of threatening to “ruin” Elliott’s career.) Elliott’s team perhaps even asked if the injuries had occurred before Thompson and Elliott spent those five days together. The league wasn’t buying it.

The league also cites a St. Patrick’s Day parade incident in Dallas, in which Elliott pulled down a woman’s top and touched her breast. That was captured on camera. The letter calls that incident “inappropriate and disturbing” and says it “suggests a pattern of poor judgment” — a familiar refrain about Elliott during this offseason, particularly after an altercation at a bar in July.

2. The NFL is now both the cops and the court.

From the NFL’s letter, you get a sense of how the league wants to handle discipline going forward. It will send a battalion of investigators into the field to try to gather evidence. (Deadspin’s Diana Moskovitz and Lauren Theisen offered a snapshot of the process last month.) Then the league will sit in judgment on the evidence it gathered, essentially deciding if it collected enough material to warrant a suspension.

We can stipulate that nearly everything about the NFL’s disciplinary policy, especially as it relates to domestic violence, is a reaction to the Ray Rice fiasco back in 2014, in which the NFL handed out a penalty of just two games without obtaining all the video of the incident. (Goodell later noted that he “didn’t get it right.”) These days, the question the NFL asks itself is not whether it should be in the business of disciplining players, but what kind of mandate it wants to give to its in-house investigative force. Put another way: The question Roger Goodell asks himself isn’t, “Are we doing too much?” but, “Are we doing enough?”

The question rightfully ought to be: “Is the league doing too much?” As Moskovitz and Theisen pointed out, the league took more than a year to levy a decision because of its, um, investigative zeal. The Rice case convinced Goodell that one bureaucratic nightmare could be solved only with another.

3. Let me put on my Cowboys fan hat.

Last season, when Elliott was running like Emmitt Smith in his prime, I argued that any Cowboys fan should reserve some brain space to think about what Elliott had been accused of (if never charged with or convicted of). After reading the “Findings” section of the NFL’s letter, I feel the same way.

“You used physical force that caused injuries to Ms. Thompson’s arms, neck, and shoulders.”

“You used physical force that caused injuries to Ms. Thompson’s face, arms, wrist, and hands.”

“You used physical forced [sic] that caused injuries to Ms. Thompson’s face, neck, arms, knee, and hips.”

When suspensions are handed down, many fans suddenly get obsessively interested in procedure. There are plenty of justifiable things to say about the NFL’s procedure! (See the cases of Rice, Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick, et al.) But that doesn’t mean a fan can’t hold two ideas in their head at the same time — what ought to happen to Elliott this season along with what might have happened in Columbus last summer.

4. Goodell vs. Jerry Jones.

As he was discussing the case on ESPN this morning, Adam Schefter said the NFL was trying to “send a message” that new Hall of Famer Jerry Jones wasn’t bigger than the league. That might not have been the reason for the suspension. But it’s hard not to think that Goodell’s relationship with Jones isn’t somewhere in the background.

For more than a year, stories have been coming out crediting Jones, rather than Goodell, with being the NFL’s true power player on issues like the Rams’ move to Los Angeles. Last month, I saw Jones’s strutting confidence at training camp, when he told reporters he had not only seen no evidence of domestic violence in the Elliott case but that “there’s not even an issue of ‘he said, she said.’”

In the NFL’s letter to Elliott, we learned that Elliott and Jones received the league’s investigative reports about the case in early June. Meaning, Jones was oozing confidence at training camp even as he was looking at the evidence the NFL would use to suspend Elliott.

When you know that fact, Jones’s comments take on a new light. Jones wasn’t just projecting optimism. He was almost being defiant: I’ve seen what the NFL’s got, and I don’t think they would dare suspend my guy. The media read Jones’s confidence as inside information; Goodell may have read it as a challenge. Remember, when you’re talking about Goodell, power is everything.

In a related story, former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz speculates that this suspension might get Jones interested in reining in Goodell’s power on matters of player discipline, something the NFL Players Association hasn’t yet been able to do.

5. The NFL is as leaky as the Trump administration.

One of the weirder stories of the Elliott case is how it dribbled into the media. On Monday, FS1’s Cris Carter said that he’d heard Elliott would be suspended because the league had determined that “something happened” in the five-day stretch of 2016. Goodell issued a non-denial denial, but the thrust of Carter’s report turned out to be true.

As The Big Lead noted, it’s eerily similar to when Stephen A. Smith broke the news about Tom Brady destroying his cellphone two years ago. How does the league, which makes such decisions within a tiny group of executives, allow such news to leak? How does it allow such news to leak to Smith and Carter? Such leaks by themselves don’t mean that the NFL is incapable of handing out suspensions. But it’s worth remembering: These are the guys that are making the decisions.