The NFL’s six-game suspension of Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott only reminded us just how much power the league wields over its players.
Through the use of forensics and metadata in its 13-months long investigation, the league determined Elliott had violated the league’s personal conduct policy and suspended him six games. Elliott has maintained his innocence, and his appeal will be heard Tuesday.
There are police reports and photos, but there are also lies and plenty of he-said/she-said. The NFL accused the union of victim blaming and shaming. The NFLPA denied the accusations and called out the league’s “lack of credibility.”
The news of Elliott’s suspension broke during my leg of The MMQB’s NFL training camp tour, so I asked a handful of players if they’d be willing to discuss, in general terms, the league’s ability to punish players. Three players, who are entering their combined 31st season, consented to the interview under the condition of anonymity.
Jones: Should the NFL—or more specifically Roger Goodell, the commissioner—have the ability to punish a player under the domestic violence policy when there was no conviction and, in the case of Elliott, no charges?
Anonymous player 1: I think I really didn’t follow his case like that to give an exact answer on how long he should be banned, or not. I think anytime you’re guilty of anything, and it’s obviously against league policy and league rules, you kind of put yourself in a position to be facing punishment or suspension or whatever it may be. I think we definitely shouldn’t have Roger Goodell overseeing everything from a standpoint of, to give guys a fair opportunity to go out and win their case. I think it should be a change there. All in all, you have to careful of what you do on and off the field.
Anonymous player 2: It’s hard to speak in generalities about these cases because each case is so unique. I think there is an element to a court of law and having different standards of proof than what’s the case with a private organization where we don’t live by those same rules and standards that the general public does. And I think we’re held to a higher standard—right or wrong—that’s the case. Guys know that and these incidents this year are not the first time it’s come up. I think guys understand the scrutiny and the expectation levels on us. Whether you like it or not, if you want to play NFL football in today’s environment, those are the rules we all have to live by. The faster guys accept that and stop trying to fight that reality, the better off… I don’t know.
Anonymous player 3: I don’t know a ton about the situation. I think the hard thing is, the commissioner is run by the owners. He gets a lot of flak, but I try to see the bigger picture that so much is harder for the players because the owners are trying to do so much to make sure the money doesn’t get damaged. No, it’s definitely not fair. By law who we are as people first, you can do nothing wrong, but the owners see this as a privilege, of something we own, so we’ll dictate. And what better way than to make one guy the bad guy and pay him a ton of money to do it? I’ve thought that for years since I’ve gotten to learn the NFL. It’s definitely not fair but the system works for them. They make a lot of money and as players, until we’re able to see outside of the box of what I make or what you make but what the overall picture of the league is for players, you won’t see much change. I think [Richard] Sherman said it earlier, to do willing to do the unthinkable and not play games. I agree with him 100% on that.
Jones: Player 3, if he did that, would you do it?
Player 3: Yeah I think so. I would definitely do it. But I think the hard thing is it doesn’t matter if three guys on this team [do it] and two guys on that team [do it] because that doesn’t stop the train. You always like to think that one guy can make a difference, but the way this league works, everyone’s replaceable. Unless you get 30 guys across each team, now you’re talking about something.
Jones: In the league’s letter announcing the suspension, it states that “we are all held to a higher standard,” meaning that league players are held to a standard higher than that of the law. Is that right?
Player 1: Obviously it’s a privilege to wear the NFL shield, and we do hold ourselves to a higher standard. I think that standard should be held for coaches to executives to owners. Without getting into details, there is some truth to that statement in the letter that was presented to him, but at the end of the day, that’s why there’s an appeal process. He has a chance to go in there and fight for his appeal. At the end of the day, you can’t put yourself in that situation to have someone else lay a ban on you or suspension on you.
Player 2: I don’t think whether it’s right or wrong is relevant. The reality is what’s relevant. Right now in the CBA and the commissioner’s discipline code or whatever you want to call it, that’s the way it’s set up. Until the new CBA or until a change is made, right or wrong is irrelevant.
Player 3: No, but I guess we signed that in our contracts. Once we sign that, we can complain later on when it comes back to backfire, but it’s part of the contract that we signed. We’ll have that debate once we go back to the table. We can debate it and say it’s right or wrong, but once you decide to sign off on that contract, you have to abide by that.
Jones: Various cases from the past have brought on the sentiment that the commissioner should not be the one to handle punishments. If you also feel that way, what’s the alternative?
Player 1: Just someone from the outside, an arbitrator or something like that so that they don’t have the same interests. They are working independently so that we as players feel like we have a fair chance. If I go in there fighting a case and it’s my mom overlooking something that happened between me and my sister, she’s obviously going to have some type of feeling in it. If someone is outside and looking at all angles, I think the players feel like you have a fair chance—whether you do or not.
Player 2: I’m not a huge union guy and I don’t know a lot about what they do. I’m not real privy to a lot of their discussions. Is there a better solution? Probably. I don’t know if I have it. I’m not sure a lot of the guys in the league have it. It’s a discussion that needs to be discussed on both sides and come up with a solution. But I think the faster guys stop worrying about the discipline structure and start just worrying about their actions, maybe this will all just be a moot point.
Player 3: I think the NFL is a microcosm of society, so why not set things the way the country is run? Obviously the country’s not perfect—at all—but trying to make it some type of balance. Do we elect a council of a couple former players with some current players and owners? Do we decide that way? That’s way better than having what seems like a couple owners deciding how Goodell decides. That’s why you see it’s a big deal when the top owners like Kraft or Jones, who many feel are like the owners of the NFL, when it goes wrong there then it’s a huge issue. I think honestly former players would be better than current players who are trying to focus on the season. That’s a lot harder to do. But maybe they have three from each side (players and ownership) where you can try to balance where it’s not just former players trying to protect the current guys, but doing what’s right. And I think that’s what’s more important. Right now you just have one side that protects themselves while the other side just suffers the consequences and says, ‘Well we’re privileged because we get to play, so whatever else happens we just gotta take.’ I think that’s the mentality in the NFL now.