Ezekiel Elliott Ruling Signals New Era for NFL in Confronting Domestic Violence

Mike FreemanNFL National Lead WriterAugust 11, 2017

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 15: Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys looks on before the NFC Divisional Playoff game against the Green Bay Packers at AT&T Stadium on January 15, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. The Packers defeated the Cowboys 34-31. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

For one of the few times ever, the NFL took the word of a woman who said she was physically abused over the word of one of its stars.

That is the only true conclusion you can draw from the six-game suspension of Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, which the league announced Friday. This day, in many ways, is a historic one. It's also a good one.

The NFL, after a sea of inconsistent, self-serving and utterly idiotic decisions relating to its players and domestic violence, may have finally gotten one right.

More than that, the league seems to be making a key new statement with the suspension: Don't even be on the fringe of this discussion, or you will incur the full wrath of a recently woke NFL on the issue of domestic violence.

In the past, the NFL rarely believed women who said they'd been physically abused by a player, particularly a star. Domestic violence was an inconvenience. The women were an afterthought. Not every time but in most instances. Ben Roethlisberger was suspended six games following sexual assault allegations in 2010.

But since then, the NFL has been a joke on this issue and handled a number of cases so poorly a textbook could be written called "How To Screw Up A Domestic Violence Investigation." It gave every break to Ray Rice. Greg Hardy got a second chance after abusing his girlfriend. Josh Brown, the former Giants kicker, was suspended just one game despite admitting to horrendous abuse of his wife.

The NFL didn't care about domestic violence. It simply didn't. That's a fact.

Then came this case and a six-game suspension of Elliott, and these words about Tiffany Thompson from former New Jersey Attorney General Peter Harvey, one of four external advisers to the NFL.

"She was a victim and survivor."

Harvey said that during a conference call with the media, and after hearing it, I almost fell out of my chair. I'm not saying no one in the NFL has ever spoken like that before, but I can't recall it; and if anyone has, it's been a long time.

The NFL has gone from ignoring the issue, to burying it, to obfuscating, to "she was a victim and survivor."

Again, the point here is we may be in a new NFL world, where the league begins consistently and severely punishing players anywhere near this issue.

What happened in this case is important, and historic, and the NFL got it right. For once, it got it right.

Now, because of the NFL's past track record on this issue, caution should be noted. We've heard the NFL talk about its evidence before, in these and other cases. Remember, the evidence was supposed to be airtight in Deflategate, and as the threads on the league's evidence were pulled, what was left was a raggedy mess.

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 15:  Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones talks with Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys before the NFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Green Bay Packers at AT&T Stadium on January 15, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Joe
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

It's possible the evidence in this case could end up weak. That may be why Jerry Jones felt so confident in recent weeks, saying (including to TMZ Sports) he didn't believe Elliott had done anything wrong. One source close to Jones told me Friday that after the suspension, Jones is "as angry as I've ever seen him."

So could this be another NFL scam? Maybe. But this seems different. Dramatically different.

Elliott is one of the league's bright young stars, and Jones is its most powerful owner. Roger Goodell is taking on an even more powerful owner than Robert Kraft.

On the conference call, the NFL put forward a compelling case for suspension. Harvey said the league's proof included an interview with Thompson, as well as a review of photographs the NFL says she took of her injuries.

The league took those photographs to experts, and the NFL says those experts verified not just their authenticity but testified how those injuries would have occurred.

The league said in its letter to Elliott, written by Todd Jones, the league's special counsel for conduct, that three incidents happened. On July 17, the NFL says, Elliott attacked Thompson at the Canvasback Lane apartments in Columbus, Ohio, causing injuries to her arms, neck and shoulders. On July 19, the NFL says, there was another altercation at the Canvasback Lane apartments, causing injuries to Thompson's face, arms, wrist and hands. On July 21, the NFL says, there was a third incident at the Canvasback Lane apartments. 

"You used physical force that caused injuries to Ms. Thompson's face, neck, arms, knee and hips," the letter says.

The NFL also made a point to call Elliott's actions at a St. Patrick's Day parade, where he pulled down a woman's top, "inappropriate and disturbing" and said it "reflected a lack of respect for women."

That language, again, is interesting.

As part of its decision-making process, the league assembled a four-person advisory panel of outside experts: Harvey; Ken Houston, a Hall of Famer who spent 14 years in the league; Tonya Lovelace, the chief executive officer of The Women of Color Network; and Mary Jo White, the former United States attorney and former Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

There were two other big things. The NFL took over a year to investigate this. It wasn't a rush to any judgment, and Goodell mostly took a backseat during the entire process.

So if the NFL is lying in this case, or exaggerating, it's a hell of a lie.

I don't think it is. Possibly, this is a simple case. The NFL, effectively, believes a woman who says she was abused, a rarity in this sport.

The other, larger message the NFL sent is more potent:

We finally give a damn.

                 

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.