Here we are again—another NFL conflict. Only this one could become nastier than most.
Now we have another battle that is getting ugly almost from the moment it has begun. Ezekiel Elliott vs. Goodell could make Brady vs. Goodell feel like little more than an undercard fight.
This dispute isn't just about Goodell's power, like the Brady situation, or focused on such banal issues as how much air should legally go into a football. This is about the welfare of a person, specifically the alleged assault of a woman named Tiffany Thompson, for which Elliott was given a six-game suspension by the NFL for violating the league's personal conduct policy.
The Elliott case, say a number of league sources, promises to test how much the NFL has changed the way it handles accusations of domestic violence. Has the league learned anything from the highly criticized way it handled previous incidents, such as with Ray Rice?
Now the case has taken another turn, as Thompson's credibility has become part of the public debate in a way we haven't seen before. While it's not up to the media to decide upon the veracity of Thompson's statements, the fact that the trustworthiness of someone in her position is being questioned can serve to undermine allegations before they are fully judged.
Indeed, there are sufficient amounts of muck. Prosecutors in Columbus, Ohio, declined to charge Elliott because of "conflicting and inconsistent information." And Yahoo's Charles Robinson reported Thompson told league investigators that she exchanged text messages with a friend in which she discussed blackmailing the Cowboys running back with intimate videos of the two unless he paid her. None of which guarantees that Thompson's accusations are false.
After the story was published, the NFL took the highly unusual step to blame the leak on the union:
Brian McCarthy @NFLprguy
New NFL statement https://t.co/KJ64RDHVB22017-8-16 16:51:34
Initially, the union tweeted the response: "Where are the receipts?"
That tweet was soon deleted and a more official response was crafted:
The public statement issued on behalf of every NFL owner is a lie. The NFLPA categorically denies the accusations made in this statement. https://t.co/OFOGQY91Ai2017-8-16 18:14:37
The union, I'm told by a source in it, remains extraordinarily angry over the NFL's statement.
On Thursday, Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, a member of the union's executive committee, revealed just how upset players are over this when he described the league's statement to ProFootballTalk Live as "really appalling." Speaking of the NFL's discipline system, he added, "Things are not fair or consistent. They're really all over the place. You can have two players do the same exact thing and get two different punishments."
Alexander didn't take a conciliatory tone about what he expects from the appeal either, sharply criticizing the NFL's choice of Harold Henderson, who once worked for the league, to hear the case.
"He's in-house," Alexander said. "He's an NFL employee. And, obviously, he works for Roger Goodell, and they're going to talk about it and come out to the same decision. He's just passing the buck who's going to oversee the case. We feel the same whether it's Roger or Mr. Henderson doing the hearing."
Thus it's no surprise that sources in both the league and the union believe this Elliott fight might be one of the ugliest the NFL has ever seen. Almost from the moment the players approved the current CBA, the union has chafed under its provisions, from salary structure to the power of the commissioner.
So brush up on how the NFL's disciplinary system works because this won't be over soon. And given the high profile of Elliott, this is going to draw a lot of air across the media landscape.
It also will draw the interest of some female fans (which it is estimated make up nearly half of the NFL's fanbase), who likely will be watching how Thompson is treated and the case judged.
There was outrage among some female fans across social media over the initial light punishment of Rice. There could be more if it's believed Thompson is being treated unfairly by either the union or the league.
No matter the final judgment, we are witnessing the immediate future of football, one filled with infighting between players and the league.
The Elliott case is just the latest standoff in one of the uglier labor periods in football history, probably the worst since the strikes in the 1980s. And these fights will continue as long as Goodell wants to keep flexing his muscles and the union wants to keep trying to check him. The head of the union, DeMaurice Smith, told TheMMQB's Albert Breer that a lockout or strike in 2021, when the labor deal ends, is "almost a virtual certainty."
There likely will be more players ensnared in legal troubles, and none of them, especially the stars, are in the mood to accept Goodell's authority. For fans, that means more players missing time on the field and more hours of sports coverage devoted to deciphering legal rules. This is not to say they should or should not be; this is to say it's a fact.
In other words, more battles are coming...
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @mikefreemanNFL.