Not much good happened in the NFL on Sunday. The games were either unwatchable blowouts or chicken fights of futility. Injuries have already started to mount. Twenty-nine people showed up in Los Angeles to watch the hometown Rams. Fox’s showcase broadcast between the Seahawks and Packers—America’s Game of the Week!—went into halftime with the score a dizzying 3–0. The quality of play did not improve much in the second half. This all served as an inglorious lead-in for Sunday Night Football starring … Ezekiel Elliott.
“I’m going to talk about Ezekiel Elliott the football player now, and leave the other to [co-host] Mike [Tirico],” Cris Collinsworth said during NBC’s Football Night in America pregame show. “The other” Elliott that Collinsworth was referring to is the guy who faced multiple domestic abuse allegations, the first of which allegedly took place in February 2016, two months before the Dallas Cowboys drafted the running back.
In the words of Robert Tobias, the principal assistant city attorney for Columbus, Ohio, Elliott’s accuser’s injuries were "consistent with what she said had happened,” i.e., violent physical abuse. The prosecutors did not file charges, however, because they felt they lacked substantial evidence to pursue the case. Nonetheless, Tobias told the league, "We didn't think that she was lying to us. ... We generally believed her for all of the incidents." The NFL’s team of investigators undertook an investigation of their own and, according to the league’s report, found “substantial and persuasive evidence” that Elliott had abused his ex-girlfriend. On the strength of that report, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell banned Elliott for six games. And yet, Elliott is on the field for the Cowboys’ opening game against the New York Giants.
Confused? Everyone should be. Goodell’s decision was made unilaterally, as he has absolute power to hand out punishments to players. This is bad. It is what turned the New England Patriots’ Deflategate saga into a mess. Deflategate, though, was an elemental farce, a stupid controversy that deserved the bumbling idiocy with which it was handled. The Elliott matter is far more serious, but it was handled with the same clown gloves.
Elliott’s lawyers and the NFL Players Association asked the U.S. District Court of Eastern Texas to step in due to a “league-orchestrated conspiracy” to withhold and “hide critical information” during the arbitration process. While Goodell had made himself a central figure in the disciplinary process, the commissioner was not present at any of Elliott’s meetings or hearings, and he did not meet with the accuser, even though she had been cooperating throughout the league’s investigation. Judge Amos L. Mazzant found that Elliott “did not receive a fundamentally fair hearing” and granted a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction that blocks the suspension from being implemented. Although the NFL may file an appeal this week, it’s likely the matter won’t be resolved until after the season. And that is why Elliott is starring in the season's first nationally televised Sunday night game.
After Collinsworth alluded to “the other” Elliott at the start of Football Night in America, the broadcast team painstakingly went through the day’s highlights, injury news, an update on Colin Kaepernick’s status, a report on Andrew Luck’s shoulder, and an analysis of Scott Tolzien’s quarterback play that went on about two minutes too long. Finally, almost an hour after Collinsworth teased it, Mike Tirico got to the Cowboys running back. As the camera found Elliott warming up on the field, Tirico quickly mentioned the player's “legal problems" before adding that Elliott didn’t have his best games against the Giants last year.
“Back to the highlights,” Dan Patrick said from the studio, throwing to footage from the Carolina Panthers’ 23–3 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.