While the length of Ezekiel Elliott's suspension might have come as a surprise, the fact that it came wasn't a shock. Since being picked fourth overall by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2016 NFL draft, Elliott has made a series of poor decisions, seemingly daring NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to do something about the Ohio State product's behavior. Goodell took Elliott up on his challenge Friday, suspending the running back for the first six games of the 2017 season.
Over the weekend, reaction to the suspension has included Jerry Jones' reported rage, glowing responses from domestic violence advocacy groups and Elliott's apology for the "distraction and disruption" he's caused during the Cowboys' training camp. Elliott's attorneys vowed to appeal the suspension Friday, promising a "slew" of new evidence in their attempt to overturn or reduce the suspension.
As the smoke from Goodell's initial decision clears, here are nine things worth knowing about Elliott's suspension, how things got to this point and where they go from here.
1. Without Pacman Jones, we wouldn't be here today.
The NFL's modern personal conduct policy came into effect in 2007, largely in response to a series of arrests of Tennessee Titans cornerback Pacman Jones. Between being drafted in 2005 and April 2007, when Goodell announced the new personal conduct policy, police arrested Jones five times and questioned him in five other cases.
Goodell, who told Jones that his conduct "brought embarrassment and ridicule upon yourself, your club and the NFL and has damaged the reputation of players throughout the league," got NFL owners and the players association to agree to a new policy that allows Goodell to suspend and fine players regardless of the legal findings of their cases. Players have the right to appeal, but those appeals are heard by Goodell or an arbiter selected by the commissioner, making the commissioner's office the investigator, prosecutor, trial judge and appellate judge of NFL discipline.
2. It took a while for the NFL to get tough on violators.
Between 2007 and 2014, the vast majority of personal conduct policy violations resulted in suspensions of between one and three games. Longer suspensions, like those given to Michael Vick, Donte Stallworth and Tank Johnson, were reserved for players convicted of felonies. Vick went to federal prison on dogfighting charges and missed two seasons. Stallworth ran over and killed a pedestrian in a drunken-driving incident and was suspended for a year, and Goodell suspended Johnson for eight games in 2008 after he spent time in jail on firearms charges.
3. Then Ray Rice happened.
Goodell suspended Ravens running back Ray Rice for two games in July 2014 after Rice was arrested for beating up his fiancée at an Atlantic City casino. Criticism of Goodell's lenient punishment reached a fever pitch when video emerged of Rice punching Janay Palmer in the face, knocking her unconscious. The Ravens cut Rice, and Goodell suspended him indefinitely for misleading the league during its investigation of the incident. That suspension was overturned by an arbiter, who ruled that Rice did not lie to Goodell during their meeting.
The Rice incident led Goodell to push for and obtain an amended personal conduct policy that standardized punishment for a player's first domestic violence incident at six games, barring aggravating or mitigating circumstances. Goodell could still hand out whatever punishment he wished, but a baseline was established.
4. Greg Hardy gets his suspension reduced.
Greg Hardy's fight with the league over his domestic violence suspension is instructive to understanding Elliott's chances in his appeal. In July 2014, a North Carolina judge convicted Hardy of domestic violence charges stemming from an incident during which he allegedly choked a woman and threw her onto a couch covered in guns. Hardy appealed the conviction, and the charges were eventually dropped when the woman, Nicole Holder, stopped cooperating with prosecutors.
The Cowboys signed Hardy before the 2015 season. After he signed, Goodell suspended him for six games. Hardy appealed, and Goodell appointed former labor executive Harold Henderson to conduct the appeal hearing. Henderson upheld the suspension but reduced it to four games because Hardy's alleged assault occurred before the league implemented its tougher domestic violence sanctions. Either Goodell or Henderson will likely hear Elliott's appeal.
5. Tom Brady doesn't get his suspension reduced.
After receiving a four-game suspension for allegedly participating in a scheme to deflate footballs used by the New England Patriots during the 2014 AFC Championship Game, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady appealed. Goodell heard Brady's appeal and upheld his decision to suspend the five-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback. Brady sued the league in order to stop the suspension.
Brady beat the league in U.S. District Court. Judge Richard Berman ruled that it was unreasonable for Brady to expect that deflating footballs or conspiring to deflate footballs could lead to the type of punishment usually handed out to players busted for using performance-enhancing drugs. The league appealed, eventually prevailing in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after the 2015 season. Brady served his suspension more than a year after it was handed out, missing the first four games of the Patriots' 2016 slate.
If Elliott loses his appeal, he can take the league to court as Brady did.
6. Timing matters (part one).
Like Elliott, Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill and Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon faced charges related to assaults against women that occurred before they played for their NFL teams. Hill received three years probation for choking and kicking his pregnant girlfriend, and Mixon pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge after punching a woman he did not know at a restaurant, breaking several bones in her face.
Neither Hill nor Mixon has faced discipline from the league, leading to streams of social media chatter suggesting Elliott is being treated unfairly. That isn't true. Elliott became subject to NFL's collective bargaining agreement as soon as he signed with the Cowboys. He did so May 18, 2016, two months before his ex-girlfriend, Tiffany Thompson, accused him of assault. Hill and Mixon were convicted of assault while they were still in college, leaving the league with little power to punish the players.
7. Timing matters (part two).
In a similar situation, before 2016, Goodell suspended Giants kicker Josh Brown for one game after he was arrested but not charged for assaulting his ex-wife. After the suspension, volumes of evidence, including Brown's diary, emerged, confirming a years-long pattern of abuse by Brown against his ex-wife. Brown's short suspension, like Rice's, was hugely embarrassing to the league, although neither player has signed on with another team since his arrest.
8. Don't expect Elliott's appeal to go like Hardy's — or Brady's.
According to Neil Morris, a labor and employment attorney with Offit Kurman, NFL players face unique circumstances when appealing disciplinary actions by their employer. Unlike most unionized workplaces, where a disciplinary dispute would be heard by an independent arbiter, NFL appeals are heard by the same person (or a representative of the person) who handed out the decision that led to the appeal.
"The odds [of a successful appeal] are very bad for Elliott because Goodell imposed the suspension," Morris tells the Observer. "Why is he going to change his mind on appeal?"
While Elliott could challenge the league's final decision in court, he would face an uphill climb because the union opted into the league disciplinary system when it signed the current collective bargaining agreement, which doesn't expire until 2020. Brady made a case that the agreement, as it existed, had not been applied fairly, and even that decision was ultimately rejected. So far, Elliott's lawyers have challenged the veracity of the evidence the NFL cited in its decision, not the way the punishment was determined once league investigators found Thompson to be credible.
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In Hardy's case, Goodell applied a new policy retroactively. Elliott's has been punished to the letter of NFL law.
9. Elliott is on thin ice. He will be for the rest of his career.
In addition to multiple alleged assaults against Thompson in July 2016, Elliot has been involved in many incidents since being drafted by the Cowboys. He was caught on film at a Washington state marijuana dispensary in August 2016, he pulled down a woman's shirt at this year's Dallas St. Patrick's Day parade and he reportedly was involved in a fight that left a DJ with a broken nose at Clutch in Uptown in July. While Goodell only considered Thompson's allegations and the parade incident in handing out the suspension, the totality of Elliott's behavior leaves him with no room for error during what would otherwise promise to be a lengthy NFL career.
"You must have no further adverse involvement with law enforcement and must not commit any further violations of league policies," NFL special counsel Todd Jones said in letter to Elliott on Friday. "In that respect, you should understand that another violation of this nature may result in your suspension or potential banishment from the NFL."
Elliott will be challenged on this front immediately — he will be left to his own devices for the duration of the suspension, which bans him from any contact with the Cowboys.