After dragging its feet for more than a year, and no doubt quietly enjoying the controversy and seemingly endless contradictory speculation by former players, media whisperers, league “insiders,” and sports talk callers, the NFL and its resident strongman, Commissioner Roger Goodell, have finally reached a decision in the alleged domestic violence incident against star running back Ezekiel Elliott. If the league has its way, Cowboys fans will be denied Zeke’s patented spoon slurping “feed me” gesture for a staggering six games, the new minimum sentence for domestic violence, per the league’s personal conduct policy. We’ll just ignore Giants kicker Josh Brown’s actual admission of guilt to more than 20 occasions of abusing his wife, which earned him a mere one-game suspension just a year ago.
And though the Cowboys backfield is likely the deepest in the league, with two former 1,000-yard backs behind Elliott on the depth chart, any team is going to be impacted if their leading rusher is on the sideline for over a third of the season, let alone a league-leading back.
So once again, an NFL player – a Cowboy, no less – is making headlines for all the wrong reasons. And once again, I find myself in the awkward position of having to defend it. Why? Because they’ve got me. I’m sucked in. I’m blinded by silver and blue. When it comes to football, I suffer from a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome, and I’m making excuses for my captors. The prospect of ending a two decades-long drought and finally parading a Lombardi Trophy through North Texas is so enticing that it’s easy for me to jam my fingers into my ears and la-la-la it all away. But there’s only so much even I can take.
When the news broke, my initial reaction was probably the same as that of Cowboys fans everywhere: shock, frustration, incredulity. You’re effing kidding me! Goodell’s an egomaniac! How could he possibly do this?! After all, the city attorney in Columbus, Ohio –– where former Ohio State Buckeye Elliott was living when the alleged attacks took place –– declined to file charges over the incident in question, in which Elliott allegedly became violent with former girlfriend Tiffany Thompson on four separate occasions during a brief period when living together in July 2016. The prosecutors cited “contradictory and inconsistent information” in Thompson’s testimony in their decision to drop the charges.
And then there are the supposed text messages that show Thompson allegedly trying to convince a friend to lie to authorities to back up her claims, not to mention Gold Jacket Jerry’s insistence on Elliott’s innocence, having personally seen all of the evidence provided to the league. During his Hall of Fame enshrinement earlier this month, Jerry said he expected no discipline from the NFL.
But Goodell and the NFL have rightfully been sharply criticized for their handling of a seeming epidemic of domestic violence from players in recent years. We’ve all seen the stomach-turning Ray Rice video and the photos of Adrian Peterson’s son, and we’ve all heard the tearful testimony from Josh Brown’s wife. The Elliott suspension is no doubt a direct response to the public outcry against a league that has wanted to protect its brand (and defeat declining ratings) by appearing tough on domestic abuse. The NFL, though, has been reluctant so far to jeopardize its quality of product by actually punishing players in any meaningful way. What better way to send a new, harsh message to players –– and fans –– than by using one of the league’s brightest young stars as an example?
There’s a fair amount of evidence that appears to suggest that the allegations against Elliott are, in part, less than 100 percent accurate. A fired-up Jerry Jones and representatives of Elliott’s are so confident of this fact that they are reportedly prepping for an appeal and potential court battle to reduce or overturn the suspension. But the league apparently (and perhaps rightly) has come to the conclusion that it’s better to punish Elliott even if he didn’t do it than to risk not punishing him if he did.
After my initial tantrum upon hearing the news, I had a sudden sobering thought. What if he did do it? Thus far, I had been barely able to entertain the possibility. Like many fans, I’m sure, I have –– perhaps subconsciously, likely intentionally –– cherry-picked my information and clung to the things that have allowed me to view the situation with the perspective that Elliott is not guilty and that perhaps even is the victim, possibly of some attempt at extortion. Who wants to believe that one of the league’s most electric players, around whom your favorite team’s entire offense is built, is capable of actions like the ones of which he’s been accused? How proud can you really be to don the jersey of a player who simply might be a bad dude? At the very least, Elliott has demonstrated an inarguable susceptibility to bouts of poor decision-making, constantly putting himself in questionable situations. In just this one offseason, there’s been the St. Patrick’s Day incident, the nightclub fiasco in which Elliott was rumored to have punched a DJ out cold, the misdemeanor conviction for driving over 100 mph on the Frisco tollway, and the two automobile accidents (not to mention he seems to find himself on TMZ almost as much as your average B-Lister). But, hey! I hear you cry. He’s young! And, sure, he’s got a lot of maturing to do, but he does wear a star on his helmet, so …
As a football fan, I’ve found myself all too often making these kinds of obsequious justifications when it comes to NFL players and to those wearing silver and blue in particular. Despite Head Coach Jason Garrot-Top’s press conferences where he robotically blathers on about “character,” “accountability,” and having the “right kind of guys,” the Cowboys, to their detractors, have earned a reputation of being perpetually composed of potheads, underwear thieves, drunk drivers, and wife beaters. And if I can wipe the blue stars from my eyes long enough, I have to begrudgingly admit, they’re mostly right.
For the third year in a row, the ’Boys will start the season without an already suspect defense’s full complement of starters. Three defensive linemen –– Randy Gregory (remember him?), David Irving, and Damontre Moore –– will all sit for substance abuse while cornerback Nolan Carroll and linebacker Damien Wilson still face potential league discipline for a DWI and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, respectively. It is also noteworthy to mention rookie cornerback Jourdan Lewis, who was drafted with his own outstanding domestic violence allegations. (In fairness, he has since been acquitted, and by all accounts, the Cowboys had full confidence he would be when they selected him in April’s draft.)
It’s no wonder that to those outside Cowboy Nation, the team looks absolutely out of control, especially when you add the transgressions of the current roster to those of just the past couple of seasons: noted head case Rolando McClain, assault-rifle body slammer Greg Hardy, department store bandit Joseph Randle, wrong-guy Lucky Whitehead, and defensive tackle Josh Brent, whose tragic drunk driving accident killed teammate Jerry Brown. It says something when your favorite team has almost as many players sent to jail as to the Pro Bowl.
No one knows what really happened except Elliott and his accuser. But I’m growing weary of having to reach so far to defend the actions of players simply because they wear the right uniform. I’m exhausted by constantly having to turn a deaf ear on the tinny, irritating voice of the angel on my shoulder who condemns me for what I’ll apparently allow in the name of entertainment. What would it take for me to finally turn away from the team that plays less than two miles from my home? Or the sport of football altogether? It’s impossible to say. But I, for one, am starting to lose my taste for Kool-Aid.