NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wielded his power to the fullest extent on Friday to suspend Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott for six games.
Prosecutors in Columbus, Ohio, elected not to charge Elliott with a crime in conjunction with a July 2016 claim that he assaulted his girlfriend Tiffany Thompson at their apartment. However, without the legal standard of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, Goodell looked at the same evidence and concluded that it indicated physical abuse had occurred.
Now, a potentially lengthy legal battle appears likely to unfurl, as the NFLPA will attempt to strike down the suspension through the appeals process and in the courts. And that will have little to do with Elliott’s prospective innocence or guilt, but will instead be done in an attempt to undo their biggest mistake in the most recent collective bargaining agreement.
Giving Goodell unmitigated power to discipline as he sees fit.
In the case of Elliott, Goodell was both judge and jury and, to a lesser extent, also the executioner. Yes, he consulted with an independent panel on the matter, but the discipline letter outlining the decision to Elliott and the Cowboys made it explicitly clear that this was his decision and his decision alone.
Furthermore, the CBA doesn’t require that his decisions to discipline players meet any measurable standard of guilt. That’s the part that is the hardest for the general public to grasp.
Because Elliott wasn’t prosecuted last September, most assume that to be a declaration of innocence. However, it’s not.
What Columbus City Attorney Richard Pfeiffer actually said was that they didn’t have enough to try Elliott and meet the incredibly high standard of the law. But Goodell stated in the letter that the investigators actually held similar beliefs that Thompson wasn’t lying and Goodell doesn’t have to meet the same legal standards, or any particular standard for that matter.
He’s free to investigate any behavior (even if it’s criminal) as he sees fit and draw his own conclusions. In a perfect world, that would allow him to dole out punishment in instances where our criminal justice system’s flaws might have failed.
As we know, this isn’t a perfect world.
That’s the issue that will truly be at the heart of whatever comes next. Not whether Elliott did or did not abuse his ex-girlfriend, despite the fact that it will be discussed ad nauseum.
The NFLPA will hope that the courts think that Goodell overstepped his boundaries by enforcing his own brand of vigilante justice against a player. The NFL will hope that the courts rule similarly, as they did in the Tom Brady/DeflateGate case, that it might not be fair, but it is the byproduct of a deal they collectively bargained and that they’re obligated to abide by Goodell’s rulings.
Of course, that means that it will be remarkably complicated.
There is a huge chasm between the legal standard we’re all used to and whatever moral standard Goodell is using to make disciplinary decisions. That’s difficult to rectify, and that’s before you consider the number of people who just outright misunderstand the difference between “not enough evidence to take it to trial” and “innocence.”
Because in our day-to-day life, we assume there to be a natural presumption that we didn’t do anything wrong. Guilty until proven innocent.
However, Goodell doesn’t have to meet that standard either. In fact, in the Ezekiel Elliott investigation, the discipline letter actually proves the opposite.
“In the commissioner’s judgment, there has been no persuasive evidence presented on your behalf with respect to how Ms. Thompson’s injuries were incurred other than conjecture,” the letter reads.
So Goodell was literally requiring Elliott to prove his own innocence rather than for the commissioner to prove his guilt.
And that further complicates matters because there’s a possibility that Elliott did abuse Thompson. Depending on what you believe, you’re either going to be inclined to think that Goodell is doing what’s right on his own accord or that he’s defaming an innocent man.
But, again, this isn’t that black and white. It’ll come down to a number of complicated legal questions and, even then, the answers are open to interpretation from judge to judge.
If they decide to fight, this could take years just as the DeflateGate case did. So this story might just be getting started.