OXNARD, Calif. (TNS) — Ezekiel Elliott has been suspended six games by the NFL following a year-long investigation into whether the Cowboys' Pro Bowl running back violated its personal conduct policy.
In a letter to Elliott advising him of the decision, Todd Jones, the NFL's Special Counsel for Conduct, said external NFL advisors who met with Elliott "were of the view that there is substantial and persuasive evidence supporting a finding that (Elliott) engaged in physical violence against (a woman he had a relationship with) on multiple occasions during the week of July 16, 2016."
Word of the suspension came Friday, about a week after Cowboys owner Jerry Jones publicly doubled-down on his belief that Elliott would not be suspended. Jones was inducted Saturday into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and had said he expected a decision imminently. Jones has indicated the NFL was looking into a pattern of behavior by Elliott off the field, in addition to a woman's claims of domestic violence last year that spurred the investigation.
But the punishment is directly tied to the woman's accusations of abuse in Columbus, Ohio, shortly before Elliott departed for his first training camp with the Cowboys. The NFL's baseline suspension for domestic violence is six games, though mitigating factors can be taken into account. An NFL spokesman said on a conference call Friday that the NFL also looked at Elliott's actions during Dallas' St. Paddy's Day festivities in March on Lower Greenville, when video caught him pulling down a woman's shirt. The act did not rise to the level of additional punishment, and no other off-field behaviors were taken into account.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's decision delivers a blow to the Cowboys and to one of the game's brightest young stars, who was the league's 2016 rushing leader as a rookie. The Cowboys are in the midst of training camp in Southern California, where they are preparing to defend their NFC East title.
The Cowboys open the season with the New York Giants on Sept. 10 at Arlington's AT&T Stadium. The ensuing five games are at Denver, at Arizona, at home versus the Rams and Packers and at San Francisco.
The discipline is being enforced despite the fact that Elliott is facing no legal charges, as is allowed per the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The NFL started using its own investigations unit in response to criticism of its handling of domestic violence accusations in 2014.
Elliott and the NFL Players Association have the right to appeal the decision within three days after being informed. The NFLPA tweeted on Friday that it is reviewing all options. An appeals hearing during the season takes place on the second Tuesday following notice of appeal, no fewer than eight days and no more than 13 following the suspension, though it can be delayed if all parties agree.
The appeal would be heard by Goodell or a designee appointed by Goodell. Players have previously also tried to fight suspensions through the legal system. Stacy Elliott, Ezekiel's father, issued a tweet on Monday that indicated a desire to fight, though the context wasn't absolutely clear.
The letter Elliott received also noted the personal conduct policy allows that another violation of this nature could result in suspension or potential banishment from the league.
Elliott, who is suspended without pay, will be allowed to take part in preseason practices and preseason games while suspended — the Cowboys play the Los Angeles Rams on Saturday.
The NFL announced that over the course of the last year, league investigators interviewed more than a dozen witnesses, including the alleged victim and Elliott. The league also consulted with medical experts. League investigators examined available evidence, including photographic and digital evidence, thousands of text messages and other records of electronic communications.
Goodell sought the views of four external advisors to assist him in evaluating potential violations. The advisors participated in a meeting on June 26, 2017 in New York City with Elliott, who was represented by his legal team and the NFL Players Association. The group also reviewed the league's investigative reports and materials, the expert medical reports, and multiple NFL Players Association submissions on Elliott's behalf.
The advisors who handled the review are: Peter Harvey, the former attorney general for New Jersey, Ken Houston, a former player and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Tonya Lovelace, CEO of The Women of Color Network, Inc. and Mary Jo White, a former U.S. attorney and former chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Harvey, on a conference call Friday, said that the decision was Goodell's alone.
He said that the NFL investigation included some evidence that authorities in Columbus, Ohio did not have, namely metadata from the alleged victim's phone that allowed them to corroborate photos of bruises with the times that she said they took place and when it was confirmed that she and Elliott were together. They also used medical experts to corroborate her version of events. Harvey said that the alleged victim also showed bruises to others and talked about how what had happened to at least one other witness.
Harvey acknowledged that the victim made a false claim against Elliott — of being yanked out of a car by him during a night out to celebrate his 21st birthday — but said that the rest of her claims were valid.
Elliott's representatives brought up alternative theories to how the woman suffered the bruises, Harvey said, including that she fell down stairs, bumped into tables at a bar where she worked as a server or perhaps someone else caused them. They also brought up a fight between the woman and another woman, but witnesses said that no punches were landed in the incident.
Harvey said the alternative theories were not backed up by evidence, and that Elliott and the woman stayed together on the dates in question.
Elliott's camp provided affidavits from witnesses, but the fact that several declined to be interviewed raised suspicions by the advisors, Harvey said.
Elliott has been under investigation since before he ever played a game in the league, a shadow that lingered even as Elliott rushed for 1,631 yards and led Dallas to a 13-3 regular season. The investigation was sparked by the accusations that first came to light in July 2016 after his 21st birthday party in Columbus, Ohio, where he'd starred at Ohio State. The claims emerged after Elliott had been selected No. 4 overall in the NFL draft in April 2016 and signed a contract worth $24 million in May. It was later revealed the same woman called police and alleged similar behavior in February 2016 in Florida, where Elliott was preparing for the NFL draft.
Elliott was not arrested and ultimately never charged, with the Columbus city attorney citing "conflicting and inconsistent information." The NFL on Friday said that the Ohio prosecutor believed the woman's claims, but did not believe he had enough evidence to pursue a case.
Elliott has proclaimed his innocence and the Cowboys and Jones have publicly backed Elliott from the beginning.
But while the investigation lingered, Elliott continued to make headlines for poor off-the-field behavior. Police records from the Ohio investigation revealed embarrassing details, including texts with the female accuser that implied he would use a sauna to pass a drug tests. He visited a marijuana dispensary before a preseason game in Seattle. Pot is legal in the state of Washington but banned by the NFL.
When he pulled down a woman's top to reveal her breast at St. Paddy's festivities in Dallas, which was caught on video, it raised questions because the league was already looking into his treatment of women. In the letter Elliott received, the incident was called inappropriate, disturbing and showed a lack of respect for women.
In July, he was involved in a nightclub fight, a source said, though police suspended their investigation because the alleged victim wouldn't cooperate.
While Elliott's off-field behavior came under scrutiny, so did the NFL's investigative process because of how long it took to reach a conclusion.
Goodell maintained that being thorough provides fairness to the athlete. Elliott's representatives called for the investigation to be closed last October. After the Cowboys' playoff loss in January, Elliott said that he wanted closure.
The Cowboys and the NFL have come under fire for their handling of players who've been accused of domestic violence.
Dallas was criticized in 2015 for signing defensive end Greg Hardy amid accusations of abuse. Photos of the alleged victim were eventually made public during that season. The NFL has been criticized for how it handled the cases of New York Giants kicker Josh Brown and former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.
Elliott has not spoken publicly since training camp opened in Oxnard, Calif., on July 24.
Backup running back options include Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris and Rod Smith.