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Ezekiel Elliott suspension suggests NFL learned critical lesson

Back in May, on the night he received a lifetime achievement award, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was asked about the looming investigation of his star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, on domestic violence allegations. Jones was adamant then, as he has been since, that he thought Elliott would be fine, that he would be available for all 16 games of the regular season.

Whether Jones was blinded by loyalty to his player or was trying to lobby league investigators and decision makers is an intriguing subplot to the six-game suspension Elliott received Friday after a year-long investigation into a string of incidents in which the NFL determined Elliott had committed physical violence. Either way, Jones had somehow missed the signals that the NFL, after being embarrassed when damning information surfaced following inadequate suspensions to Ray Rice and Josh Brown, was going to finally let its get-tough domestic violence policy -- and the investigative arm it created in the wake of the Rice fiasco -- go to work.

That Elliott was never charged with any crime is beside the point. The league has a different -- and much lower -- threshold of proof to be met in the discipline of any NFL employee. And even Peter Harvey, the former New Jersey attorney general who served on a four-person advisory panel for this decision, acknowledges that the higher threshold is what stopped Ohio prosecutors from proceeding. That prosecutor who did not bring charges also told the NFL that "we generally believed her for all of the incidents." It can't any longer come as a surprise that our legal system sometimes fails women who accuse men of violence. Rice got off with a slap on the wrist from the courts and it stung league officials after that fiasco that the NFL was blamed for not being tough enough when it had done more than the judicial system had.

The length of this investigation irritated plenty of people -- not least Jones -- but it should actually be reassuring, even to players. First, the owners signed up for this when the they wanted a tougher policy in the wake of the Rice fiasco. The investigation appears to have been rigorous and made no attempt to rush to judgment to fit a football calendar or an insistent, powerful owner. That Elliott's representatives said in a statement announcing the 22-year-old running back's appeal that the league cherry-picked information should sound familiar to those who closely followed Tom Brady's appeals in Deflategate. But had the investigation concluded that there was nothing to pin on Elliott, the thoroughness of it would have worked in his favor.

The NFL said it reviewed photographs of the accuser's injuries and used forensic analysis to back up when the photos were taken. Because issues had been raised about the accuser's credibility, the league made clear in its letter to Elliott that it did not rely solely on her account. That is as it should be. Elliott's reputation will be stained by this episode -- likely whether the suspension is reduced on appeal or not -- and the Cowboys harmed by the discipline against him. The NFL should do all it can to make sure it knew everything and had the most complete picture of the events it could piece together before rendering a judgment. Too often in the past, we've been left to wonder why that wasn't the case.

On Friday afternoon, Elliott's representatives called into question the accuser's honesty and motives, while also casting aspersions on the league's investigation. The tone of the statement suggests Elliott is prepared to exhaust his options, and perhaps take the league to court.

"The NFL's findings are replete with factual inaccuracies and erroneous conclusions and it 'cherry picks' so called (sic) evidence to support its conclusion while ignoring other critical evidence," the statement says. "For example, both the Columbus Prosecutor's office as well as the NFL investigators expressly concluded and conveyed to our office (and others) that the accuser was lying about an alleged July 22, 2016 incident whereby she accused Mr. Elliott of pulling her out of her car and assaulting her. An allegation that was ultimately undermined by her own friend's affidavit which stated that no such assault occurred. The affidavit also outlined the accuser's plan to orchestrate a story to police to in order to corroborate her false allegation of assault. In addition, the NFL's own medical experts concluded that many of her injuries predated the week in question and likely occurred during a period of time when Mr. Elliott was not in contact with the accuser. During the upcoming weeks and through the appeal a slew of additional credible and controverting evidence will come to light."

That the league had in the past been inconsistent with its investigations and discipline is what creates the impression this six-game ban is harsh. In fact, it hews exactly to the league's baseline for discipline in a domestic violence case. The bottom line is that the NFL finally seemed to put more stock in the female accuser and the evidence that backed her up than in the male player's explanations.

Elliott's appeal will be heard before Week 1 and then perhaps this will head to court. The NFL has been there before. The difference now is its personal conduct policy might finally have worked as it intended. The NFL doesn't deserve applause for that. But it's been three years since the Rice case unraveled before a dismayed league that did almost everything wrong. Finally, with all the evidence it says it gathered on Elliott, and with a punishment that would fit the alleged transgressions, the NFL may prove it learned its lesson at long last.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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