There are still no right answers.
That’s the only thing with all the Ezekiel Elliott business — the alleged battery of a partner in July 2016, the bruises left along her arms and shoulders and neck, the days of allegedly escalating violence until she finally went to the police, the groping of a second woman in March 2017 — that is totally clear. Nothing that fans, the Cowboys, or the NFL can do can fix either the things that happened over the past 13 months, or the fact that they are only the most recent reason we are having this conversation. “You used physical force that caused injuries to Ms. Thompson’s face, arms, wrist, and hands,” reads one passage of the NFL’s official discipline letter addressed to Elliott on Friday. Physical force that caused injuries.
So now we have the NFL’s attempt at justice: In accordance with the league’s personal conduct policy, the 22-year-old star running back will be suspended for the first six games of 2017, more than a third of the regular season. That sentence may still be lightened; Elliott, who has maintained his innocence and hasn’t been charged, plans to appeal, and the NFL Players Association has said it is reviewing the decision.
It’s a much harsher sentence than many expected, and it is an unambiguous sign that the league is at last taking domestic violence more seriously. The investigation was dreadfully slow, reportedly due in part to stalling by the players association — more than a year has elapsed since the filing of the police report that launched the NFL investigation, a window in which Elliott was able to play in every game of his rookie season — but at least it seems to have been painstakingly thorough. The NFL’s discipline letter describes league investigators interviewing “more than a dozen” witnesses, sorting through evidence (including “thousands of text messages and other records of electronic communications”), and convening with a number of outside experts (including medical professionals, a former state attorney general, and Tonya Lovelace, CEO of the Women of Color Network). And yet we still don’t know precisely what a six-game suspension represents. Was this, an absence the same length as a stint on the PUP list, as draconian as the league was willing to get with one of its biggest stars? Was this a compromise in place of a much harsher sentence? We still, after all these years and all these cases, don’t have any sense of what the league’s process is, how it works, or how it is intended to work — and thus we can’t feel like justice has really been served.
In past domestic violence incidents, the league has often seemed to act only when forced to do so by public opinion. Ray Rice was suspended for just two games before brutal footage of his 2014 attack on his then-fiancée — video that the NFL office reportedly had in its possession — was published by TMZ, prompting public outcry of such magnitude that Goodell, who’d previously acknowledged that the league “didn’t get it right” the first time around, backpedaled again, suspending the running back indefinitely. Rice won an appeal for reinstatement in November 2014, but he hasn’t played a snap in the league since.
But here we have the NFL pushing what it, at least, considers to be a severe sentence against one of its highest-profile players, and the league surely knew the decision would be unpopular among many fans (to say nothing of Jerry Jones). The suspension is a firmer ruling, and adheres more closely to the league’s own personal conduct policy, than did so many others. Nothing can undo the many times that athletic talent has been favored over the safety of women, but it is at least an indication that the league is trying to do better. And yet it’s still not enough.
With Elliott’s suspension, the NFL is leaning toward a punitive, as opposed to a rehabilitative, form of punishment. The discipline letter makes only a passing reference to counseling: In addition to his suspension and a requirement to avoid further brushes with the law, Elliott must “engage a qualified professional,” and “[s]hould counseling or treatment be recommended,” he will be obligated to comply. Punitive systems work under the operating assumption that the prospect of stiff penalties will keep would-be wrongdoers on the straight and narrow: This is, in the end, less about Elliott than it is about the NFL trumpeting its own progress and trying to scare the rest of the league straight.
And yet there is a whole body of research that indicates that punitive justice systems seldom function as the wholesome deterrents their designers intend. Elliott was linked to an altercation in a bar just weeks ago, and it’s difficult not to see a pattern of violent behavior. Do we think — does the league think — that sitting out six games will change this? It could. It might. Sitting out no games in 2016 didn’t appear to change his mind about his right to touch a woman’s breast in March, so who can say?
And so once again, we are asking the same questions: Why does this keep happening, how do we stop it, what role do all of us play in cheering for an apparatus that so frequently props up batterers? And once again, the league has failed to provide any real answers. Handing out incrementally more serious punishments is certainly a step in a better direction. Except yet again that step has emerged from an opaque system, and yet again, even the solution arrives with problems. We will undoubtedly, regrettably, wretchedly have this conversation again.