Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was suspended six games by the NFL Friday. (Gus Ruelas/AP Photo)

Three years after coming under intense scrutiny and withering criticism for its handling of domestic violence cases involving several prominent players, the NFL handed out one of its harshest penalties to one of its biggest on-field standouts Friday. The league suspended Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott for the first six games of the regular season without pay for a pair of incidents involving women.

The penalty was imposed by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after a lengthy process in which league investigators interviewed Elliott’s former girlfriend multiple times, according to a person familiar with the case, and in which Goodell received input from four outside advisers.

The NFL interviewed more than a dozen witnesses, according to the person familiar with the case. It contacted others who were unwilling to cooperate. League investigators studied thousands of text messages, more than were available to Columbus, Ohio, law enforcement officials who first investigated the claims by Elliott’s former girlfriend of a violent incident during the summer of 2016. The league also relied on material made publicly available online by authorities in Columbus and had experts analyze pictures to determine when they were taken.

“The conclusions were not based on he said, she said,” the person with knowledge of the investigation said. “It was an analysis of the evidence.”

Elliott was accused of what the NFL’s letter to him about the disciplinary measures called “multiple instances of physical violence” against his then-girlfriend in July 2016 in Columbus. Elliott was not arrested or charged with a crime.

The lead attorney in Columbus who evaluated the allegations, Robert S. Tobias, told USA Today last October he personally believed that “there were a series of interactions between Mr. Elliott and [his accuser] where violence occurred. However, given the totality of the circumstances, I could not firmly conclude exactly what happened.”

According to a copy of the letter from B. Todd Jones, the NFL’s chief disciplinary officer, to Elliott, obtained by The Washington Post, the league’s punishment also covers an incident from earlier this year. While watching a St. Patrick’s Day parade in March in Dallas, Elliott “pulled down the shirt of a young woman, exposing and touching her breast,” the NFL’s letter said. “This incident was captured on video and posted on social media. Again, no arrest was made nor was a complaint filed by the young woman.”

No other incidents involving Elliott, including recent allegations about his involvement in a scuffle in a Dallas bar, factored into his punishment, according to the person with knowledge of the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

“It didn’t factor into aggravating circumstances,” the person said. “It didn’t have any impact on discipline.”

The person also dismissed public speculation this week by former NFL player Cris Carter that Elliott’s punishment would be based in part on a lack of cooperation with league investigators.

“The issue of cooperation or lack thereof was not considered,” the person said, and added: “We did not consider anything outside of what happened last July and St. Patrick’s Day. What he did there is a violation of our policy.”

The six-game suspension represents the baseline penalty for a domestic violence offense under the terms of the sport’s revised personal conduct policy. That policy was ratified in December 2014 on the heels of that year’s controversies over cases involving Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy. Elliott is not the first player to receive a six-game suspension under the revised policy, but he is, by far, the highest-profile player to be given such a punishment since the policy was reworked.

Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher last season as a rookie and a key piece of a Cowboys team with grand designs of reaching the Super Bowl this season, can appeal the penalty if he chooses. The appeal would be heard and resolved by Goodell or a person appointed by him, under the league’s disciplinary procedures.

A written statement released by Elliott’s representatives to media outlets suggested that Elliott will appeal, saying: “During the upcoming weeks and through the appeal a slew of additional credible and controverting evidence will come to light.”

The statement called Elliott and his representatives “extremely disappointed with the NFL’s decision,” and added: “The NFL’s findings are replete with factual inaccuracies and erroneous conclusions and it ‘cherry picks’ so called evidence to support its conclusion while ignoring other critical evidence.”

According to the statement, prosecutors in Columbus and NFL investigators concluded that Elliott’s accuser was lying about one allegation of Elliott pulling her from a car and assaulting her. The statement also said that NFL medical experts concluded “many of her injuries predated the week in question.”

Elliott would lose just under $559,193 if the suspension stands, or six-seventeenths of his 2017 salary of a little more than $1.584 million.

“With respect to discipline for violations that involve physical force against a woman in the context of an intimate relationship, the [personal conduct] Policy is clear — a first violation subjects the violator to a baseline suspension without pay of six games, with consideration given to any aggravating or mitigating factors,” the NFL said in its letter to Elliott.

“After reviewing the record, and having considered the advice of the independent advisors on this point, the Commissioner has determined that the evidence does not support finding either mitigating or aggravating factors.”

Elliott’s former girlfriend involved in the domestic violence allegations spoke to the NFL’s investigators “multiple times,” according to the person familiar with the process, saying that a number of interviews were “in person.”

The person characterized the league’s investigation as exhaustive, stressing that private organizations can impose their own standards of conduct upon employees beyond what is done or not done by law enforcement entities. The NFL stressed when it enacted its revised personal conduct policy in 2014 that it would conduct its own investigations of cases.

Goodell did not participate formally in the June 26 meeting in New York, previously revealed by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, in which Elliott and his representatives met with league officials. That meeting was overseen by Todd Jones, formerly the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives before becoming the NFL’s chief disciplinary officer.

The league’s four outside advisers in the case also attended. They were identified in the league’s letter to Elliott as Peter Harvey, the former attorney general of New Jersey; former NFL safety Ken Houston, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame; Tonya Lovelace, the chief executive officer of Women of Color Network, Inc; and Mary Jo White, a former federal prosecutor and former chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Goodell made the disciplinary ruling in the Elliott case after consulting individually with each of the advisers. The advisers had a consensus opinion but did not make a formal recommendation to Goodell as a group, according to the person with knowledge of the investigation, who added that the league had learned from its missteps in the Rice case in 2014. The league also was criticized for its handling of a case last year involving New York Giants place kicker Josh Brown, in which he earned a one-game suspension after the league became aware of accusations by his former wife that he’d been physically violent toward her.

“We’ve made significant progress in having the right people in the room. That didn’t happen in the Ray Rice case,” the person said, adding of the length of the Elliott investigation: “We felt very strongly it was important to get this right and be thorough and exhaustive.”

The length of the process, the person said, also stemmed in part from a wait from December until May for Elliott and his representatives to supply certain information and materials.

The league’s letter also said: “Each of these incidents involved allegations of conduct that is expressly prohibited by the League’s Personal Conduct Policy, including ‘[a]ctual or threatened physical violence against another person.’ Even when a player is not charged with a crime, ‘he may still be found to have violated the policy if the credible evidence establishes that he engaged in conduct prohibited by this Personal Conduct Policy.’

“As the Policy states, ‘[i]t is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime. We are all held to a higher standard and must conduct ourselves in a way that is responsible, promotes the values of the NFL, and is lawful.’”

Jerry Jones previously had said he did not believe that Elliott’s case merited a suspension. He was said by some within the league to be extremely upset by the ruling.

The NFL Players Association said in a written statement: “We are reviewing the decision and have been in touch with Ezekiel and his representatives to consider all options.”

The NFLPA repeatedly challenged the league, both through the appeals process and in court, in cases under the personal conduct policy such as those involving Rice, Peterson and Hardy, and in the infamous Deflategate case that resulted in the four-game suspension of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady under the sport’s competitive rules.

The union has sought to reduce Goodell’s power to discipline players and resolve their disciplinary appeals. Goodell has been adamant about retaining his power in those areas but did appoint outsiders to resolve appeals in some cases, such as Rice’s. The league and union nearly struck a separate deal to modify the player-discipline process and Goodell’s role in it but those negotiations collapsed at the last minute. The issue is likely to be addressed in the sport’s next collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA runs through 2020.

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