By Jason Keidel
Few things are as ugly as domestic violence. But this escalating tete-a-tete between the NFL and the NFLPA over Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension is growing ugly, rancorous layers, from a basic union dispute to a referendum on domestic violence, appropriate punishment, and the appropriate power a commissioner should have to mete out said punishment.
Not to mention accusations of victim-shaming, with all kinds of confidential details from the NFL’s investigation into Elliott gushing into the public domain. The goal of Elliott’s legal team and the NFLPA is to question the alleged victim’s integrity and veracity, while the NFL went on the preponderance of the evidence they unearthed over the last year, which they used to suspend the Cowboys RB six games. (Christine Brennan wrote a fine piece on this dynamic in USA Today.)
Like most hot-button topics, there’s little middle ground here. Either you feel that Elliott was a victim of public sentiment, flattened by a cultural wave that punishes first and asks questions later, or you feel Elliott got exactly what he deserved, that he’s just one in a endless line of pampered, entitled athletes who feel they can do whatever they want, to whomever they want, with impunity.
No matter your stance in general or on Elliott in particular, we can likely agree on two things.
First, that Elliott was, in some form, headed this way, crossing all manner of public, implicit, and legal lines with his reckless conduct, and was clearly speeding to some kind of public or corporate reckoning. While the NFL said in its ruling that other acts of indecency were not considered, they are hard to ignore. From Elliott driving 105 mph on some Texas highway, to allegedly dropping someone with one punch at a Dallas bar, to that eyesore moment where he literally yanked on a woman’s shirt on St. Patrick’s Day, trying to expose her breasts, the running back has had his moments.
Indeed, Elliott has many predecessors in all team sports. We’ve seen enough patent disregard for rules and laws from other athletes to identify a pattern when we see it. You can just look down the line of scrimmage, at Elliott’s teammate Dez Bryant, to know what it looks like. Bryant has apparently learned from his malfeasance, and is now a fantastic teammate and good citizen. Perhaps Elliott can seek guidance from a former, fellow miscreant.
Second, Elliott entered a perfect cultural storm of public outrage and botched rulings. Ever since the NFL bungled the Ray Rice case, it has made domestic violence a top-tier internal issue. They cringe at the idea of banning a player for two games and then TMZ or some media entity dropping a PR bomb of a video or audio or some toxic proof of the offense. Better to slap Elliott with six games and let the appellate process sort out the details then to get swallowed by a mushroom cloud of incompetence or indifference.
Sadly, this is often how jurisprudence works. Rather than eyeing each case entirely on its own merit, we are influenced by prior cases and precedence, which often swings the hammer of justice too far one way or another.
This again raises the curtain on Roger Goodell, whose authority has been enhanced and disputed. Elliott’s defenders say that since the courts didn’t find enough to press charges, that should pacify the league into letting the whole thing go. But we’ve also seen cases, like Greg Hardy, where there was evidence of abject abuse, yet no conviction. So when Goodell suspended Hardy, few complained. The cases aren’t exactly analogous, but few are.
Elliott has been a jerk, at best; someone who assaulted his former girlfriend, at worst. Had he done this a decade ago, he may not have sat a single quarter this season, which is obviously unacceptable. Does he deserve to ride the pine for nearly two months? Who among us is really qualified to make that call?
This case should not be about Elliott’s ex-girlfriend, Tiffany Thompson, or what she may have said in the heat of an argument or in frothing indignity after she may have been assaulted by a much larger, stronger, and richer man. Sadly, however, these cases are rarely about what happened but rather who has the most power, be it physical, financial, or legal. Ezekiel Elliott may or may not deserve six games for what happened, but based on his behavior just in the one year he’s been in the NFL, it’s hard to think of him as innocent.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.