ezekiel elliott

Does the NFL Really Care About Domestic Abuse?

The NFL suspended star Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott for six games Friday, a severe punishment that the league is hoping eliminates the perception that it’s soft on domestic violence, especially  juxtaposed against the penalties handed down in the past for lesser offenses. And that will be the conclusion that some will draw, eager to clear the runway for the 2017 NFL season to begin in a few weeks. Tom Brady and his best chance at 19-0 since 2007, Odell and his on-field ridiculousness–with such storylines, who has time to be discerning when it comes to domestic abuse?

Not NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, that’s for sure.

Make no mistake, Elliott should have been investigated for his role in whatever happened between him and Tiffany Thompson during that week in July 2016. Photos of significant injuries were presented, troubling accusations were levied and law enforcement got involved. But the Columbus (Ohio) City Attorney’s Office declined to press charges in September 2016 due to “conflicting and inconsistent information,” and after a year of circling it appears as if NFL officials can’t detail Elliott’s alleged wrongdoing either. Instead in announcing the suspension, the league’s official press release framed the NFL as being “of the view that there is substantial and persuasive evidence supporting a finding that [Elliott] engaged in physical violence against Ms. Thompson on multiple occasions during the week of July 16, 2016.”

Somewhere, Goodell’s PR specialist is silently fist-pumping having pulled off the language “of the view that there is substantial and persuasive evidence,” because it absolves Goodell of the duty of having to explicitly state that, if there is in fact evidence that directly implicates Elliott, neither Goodell nor the league has seen it.

So how did Elliott land at a pre-appeal suspension of six games—nearly half the upcoming season? The league’s recent history with domestic violence punishments tells that story. After punching his fiancé, Janay Rice, unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator, former Ravens star Ray Rice was suspended for a mere two games, even after divulging to Goodell that he’d used physical force to knock her out cold. It wasn’t until TMZ unearthed footage from inside the elevator that Rice was indefinitely suspended from the league, a decision ultimately reversed on appeal. The words “two games” written together became a foul stench hanging over the league.

And Elliott’s isn’t even the open-and-shut case that Greg Hardy’s was. Hardy, a former Cowboys and Panther star, was actually found guilty on two counts of domestic violence for his role in a 2014 incident and given 18 months of probation. In hindsight, the time for the league to really make the “important” statement against domestic violence was with Hardy, who reportedly threatened to kill his girlfriend at the time. Instead, Hardy received a contract from the Cowboys the very next season, and got his 10-game suspension knocked down to four.

That’s to say nothing of Josh Brown, perhaps the ugliest eyesore on the NFL’s punishment resume of late. The Giants kicker was suspended just one game in 2015 after an arrest at his home following an incident with his then wife, who told police that he’d attacked her on over 20 occasions. Seventeen months later, a collection of Brown’s personal documents surfaced, some of which detailed the different ways he abused his wife, lending validity to his wife’s desperate claims.

Now, to fix its image, the NFL has installed a mandatory minimum suspension of six games for domestic violence offenders. But Elliott’s suspension feels more like the NFL putting a head on its mantle than effective discipline. To be clear, this is no defense of Ezekiel Elliott. He hasn’t made a particular effort to stay out of trouble since the incident in question, and the accusations made against him are disturbing. But none of that appears to be driving league’s decision here. Instead, Elliott looks to be caught in the crossfire of the NFL’s ongoing public relations war, as the league tries to beat back a barrage of bad press, from near daily revelations about the dangers of repeated head injuries, to the Colin Keapernick “controversy“(which as of yesterday, now includes Marshawn Lynch), to its perception of being soft on domestic abusers.

By swallowing what he knew about Rice’s actions in that Atlantic City elevator and clearing the way for him to expeditiously return to football, Goodell opened up a floodgate that makes it impossible for him to be taken at his word, even as he tries to convey compassion for an alleged victim of domestic violence. Goodell was trashed for repeatedly giving offenders a pass, and now he wants to make up for that by throwing the book at Elliott in a situation where the door that leads to Elliott actually being innocent remains open.

Thus far, Elliott’s suspension has been hailed as a new leaf for the league–a badly needed one, as the decidedly less conservative and more inclusive rival NBA league’s popularity continues to explode. Unfortunately, given Goodell’s tokenist approach to past issues, coupled with the NFL’s unnerving approach to rising CTE awareness, it’s hard to imagine the day in the near future when the NFL is pegged as an organization that really, truly cares.

 

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