Tim Cowlishaw: How the Elliott case is a win for the NFL, no matter the outcome in courtSeptember 14, 2017 8:31am

Sept. 13-- I may have been alone in thinking that Friday's court ruling in Sherman, which gave running back Ezekiel Elliott an injunction against the league, was a win-win for both sides. I believe it even more strongly now. In fact, with the notable exception of the accuser, it was a win for everyone involved or even remotely connected to the case.

There's no need to spend much time discussing how it was a win for Elliott and the Cowboys. The 104 yards rushing and the 19-3 victory over a team that beat Dallas twice in 2016 said enough. No one can say with 100 percent certainty that Elliott will remain free from the shackles of this suspension all season, but all indicators and courtroom veterans point in that direction.

So it's a big win for the Cowboys. But how could anything that has made the NFL the butt of jokes about its investigative intelligence (or lack thereof) be classified as a victory for the league?

It's relatively simple and it's not as cynical as it sounds.

Commissioner Roger Goodell decided in the wake of the Ray Rice fiasco to take a strong stand against domestic violence. The personal conduct policy and the six-game suspension were established. And Elliott became the test case for the implementation of this policy.

In a case in which the evidence was shaky enough that the league's only investigator to interview Tiffany Thompson recommended no suspension at all, Goodell handed out a punitive six-game penalty. Cowboys fans tended to see this as ludicrous. But if you're involved in domestic violence support in any way, you would stand back and applaud Goodell for taking the accuser's side even in a case the legal system wouldn't touch.

When Elliott appealed, the courts came along, examined the fact that investigator Kia Roberts was not even involved in the suspension decision and ruled it invalid. Elliott received not just the temporary restraining order he had immediately sought but the injunction as well.

But the view from the NFL?

Hey, we did everything we could. We can't help it if the judicial system took the suspension away.

The league, of course, will continue to fight the legal battle and may eventually win as it did in similar struggles involving different issues with Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson. The power bestowed upon the commissioner in the CBA is immense.

But even if it doesn't win, the league wins. Elliott, one of the game's stars, continues to play for the league's TV ratings giant. In fact, Sunday's New York-Dallas game, even without the star power of Odell Beckham Jr. or anything approaching a competitive contest, was Sunday's highest rated program and drew a 6 percent increase in viewers 18-to-49 over last season's Sunday night opener between the same two teams.

Surely the league would like to get it right when it comes to dealing with domestic violence issues. It's a thorny problem because we know the courts don't tend to hand out significant penalties, especially when the accused have money to fight their cases.

So that leads the NFL into the murky world of exacting its own punishments after the courts have failed. Thus, you dive into a situation where Thompson's testimony hardly makes her the ideal sympathetic victim, but you conclude that Elliott may have been involved so you penalize him as if you know with certainty it's the truth.

That's how we got here. The NFL is allowed to say it tried but was stymied by the courts.

One could argue that a more competent investigation by the league would not have been so easily dismissed by a judge in Sherman, and that's true. But I'm not sure the league ever could have reached the six-game suspension level under those circumstances. The mere fact that the only person who talked to Thompson did not fully believe her suggests that the NFL had to keep Roberts out of any penalty discussion in order to reach the conclusion it sought.

How does the win extend beyond the NFL saving face?

Players around the league watch these developments. And while we all know that in the act of committing a crime, people don't stop and think, "What exactly is the penalty if I do this," it stands to reason that many players will conclude they need to be more careful in their dealings with people off the field than they ever imagined. Even inconclusive evidence can cost them their livelihood for six games, and a second offense is banishment from the league.

So the NFL has spoken. Its words were dismissed in Sherman, but that doesn't mean they won't resonate throughout locker rooms for some time to come.


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