As the Cowboys marched through the first half of their schedule to the tune of 7-1, they've been shrouded by a couple of black clouds. One, what to do with budding rookie star quarterback Dak Prescott when Tony Romo is ready to play following his preseason back injury, is competition based and more than a little fun to argue about. The other, the ongoing NFL investigation into a couple of alleged incidents of domestic violence by Prescott's fellow precocious star, running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Elliott no longer faces legal trouble in either of the incidents. In both cases, one in Florida and one in Ohio, Elliott's ex-girlfriend, Tiffany Thompson, accused him of either grabbing or shoving her. In Florida in February, cops didn't arrest Elliott because Thompson hadn't suffered any visible injuries and there were no independent witnesses.
Elliott remains somewhat vulnerable though, because of the NFL's arbitration process for disciplinary actions.
In Ohio in July, Elliott wasn't arrested and wasn't prosecuted because of conflicting witnesses statements. In the latter case, evidence released by the Columbus, Ohio, city attorney's office points to Thompson encouraging witnesses to lie via text message. A witness present in the parking lot from which Thompson called 911 claimed that he heard Thompson tell Elliott she was going to "ruin his life."
Despite being out of legal trouble, Elliott has been dealing with NFL investigators all season. The league's disciplinary policy, signed off on by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL players union, exists independent from the legal system.
"If you are convicted of a crime or subject to a disposition of a criminal proceeding, you are subject to discipline. But even if your conduct does not result in a criminal conviction, if the league finds that you have engaged in conduct [prohibited by the policy], you will be subject to discipline," the league's policy reads.
Morris says there's a reason law enforcement hasn't pressed charges against Elliott — there just isn't a case. Conflicting witness statements, Thompson asking witness to lie and the lack of physical evidence make for a case that any competent lawyer could tear apart, Neil A. Morris, the head of the labor division at Offit Kurman, a Philadelphia law firm, says. That makes it hard for the league to prove Elliott did anything prohibited by the policy.
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"The problem for Elliott is that, unfortunately, after what happened in the [Josh] Brown case with Giants, where the NFL had to backtrack and issue a severe punishment, the timing is bad," Morris says. "When someone makes an abuse allegation, the person being accused has rights, too, and in this particular case it seems like it's his rights that are being violated."
(Josh Brown, the Giants former kicker, was initially suspended one game for domestic violence; when graphic evidence of his abuse against his wife came out, the Giants cut him.)
Goodell is the be all and end all of NFL discipline, which is different than most organizations. Most of the time, Morris says, an independent arbiter sits at the top of the disciplinary chain, free to make decisions as he or she sees fit. For NFL players, Goodell always makes the final decision. The leagues investigators make a case, and then the league office makes an initial decision, but all appeals flow through Goodell.
If Elliott is suspended for domestic violence, six games is the base line penalty, according to the league's disciplinary policy.