The NFL has suspended Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott without pay for the first six games of the season for violating the league's personal conduct policy.
Elliott, 22, the Cowboys' first-round pick in 2016, won the NFL rushing title as a rookie and led Dallas to the top seed in the NFC.
The league said in a statement Friday that it conducted "an extensive investigation" over the past year, interviewing more than a dozen witnesses, including Tiffany Thompson, who alleged several instances of physical violence by Elliott in July 2016. The league also consulted with medical experts, as well as examined all available evidence, including photographic and digital evidence, thousands of text messages and other records of electronic communications.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sought the views of four external advisors to assist him in evaluating potential violations. The advisors have experience in law enforcement, judicial and public service, as well as other specialized subject areas.
The statement reads: "In a letter to Elliott advising him of the decision, Todd Jones, the NFL's Special Counsel for Conduct, said these advisors 'were of the view that there is substantial and persuasive evidence supporting a finding that [Elliott] engaged in physical violence against Ms. Thompson on multiple occasions during the week of July 16, 2106.' "
Goodell's four-member advisory committee was comprised of Peter Harvey, former attorney general of New Jersey; Ken Houston, a Hall of Fame player; Tonya Lovelace, chief executive of the Women of Color Network Inc.; and Mary Jo White, former U.S. attorney and former chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
"The investigation conducted by the league was thorough, comprehensive and carefully done," Harvey said.
Harvey, in a conference call with reporters, said Elliott's lawyers offered several possible reasons the woman might have sustained bruises.
"Mr. Elliott's representatives argued in a meeting that, maybe Ms. Thompson fell down stairs," he said. "There was no witness to say she fell down stairs, and there was no photograph of her falling down stairs. Mr. Elliott's representatives suggested that maybe because she was a server, what is called bottle service, maybe she bumped into tables. There was no witness who saw Ms. Thompson bump into tables while serving anything.
"Mr. Elliott's representatives suggested that maybe she was in a fight with another woman and the bruises — for example, the bruise on her eye and perhaps other bruises on her body — were sustained in that altercation. The NFL investigators talked to people who witnessed that altercation, and it was revealed that neither woman landed a punch on the other. They pulled each other's hair, but they never hit each other with a balled-up fist or any other way."
Elliott will appeal the suspension. His representatives released a statement Friday saying the NFL's findings are "replete with factual inaccuracies and erroneous conclusions."
The league "'cherry picks' so called evidence to support its conclusion while ignoring other critical evidence," the statement reads. "For example, both the Columbus (Ohio) Prosecutor's office as well as the NFL investigators expressly concluded and conveyed to our office (and others) that the accuser was lying about an alleged July 22, 2016 incident whereby she accused Mr. Elliott of pulling her out of her car and assaulting her. An allegation that was ultimately undermined by her own friend's affidavit which stated that no such assault occurred."
In response to the suspension, the NFL Players Assn. issued a one-sentence statement: "We are reviewing the decision and have been in touch with Ezekiel and his representatives to consider all options."
The NFL began investigating Elliott in the wake of accusations of physical abuse by Thompson, who said she was Elliott's girlfriend and lived with him in Ohio, posted Instagram photos of bruises on her body and accused him of assaulting her. Elliott, who said the two were just friends and never dated, denied the abuse claims and said the bruises were a result of a bar fight in which she was involved.
Several months before, Thompson had told police in Florida that Elliott had pushed her against a wall and injured her left shoulder. There were no visible signs of injury, and the woman declined medical attention. According to the police report, Elliott told authorities that she "became angry over a social media incident and upset because she was asked to leave his apartment and go back to Ohio."
Although Elliott was not arrested in those instances, the NFL still can discipline a player regardless of whether he is facing legal charges.
When asked about the Elliott investigation in December, Goodell said: "The best way to be fair to a player is to be thorough and to take your time and get it right. So, that is what we're working on. We have professionals that are working on this. We're not putting a timetable on it. We want to make sure they get it right, they get all the facts. And when they reach a conclusion, we'll all know about it."
According to police records from the investigation in Ohio, Elliott told the woman in text exchanges that he would use a sauna to help him pass NFL drug tests.
There were more incidents. Elliott visited a marijuana dispensary called "Herban Legends" before an exhibition game in Seattle last summer — even posing for a picture with a fan. TMZ posted a video of that, although Elliott did not appear to buy anything in the pot shop.
At St. Patrick's Day festivities in Dallas, TMZ also reported, Elliott pulled down a woman's top to reveal her breasts. In July, he was accused of breaking a man's nose in a bar fight in Dallas. Elliott had left the nightclub by the time police arrived, and the man — seen in a video writhing on the floor in pain, and later in pictures with a badly displaced nose — wouldn't cooperate with authorities.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer
5:15 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from Elliott's representatives.
11:50 a.m.: This article was updated with information from a conference call with Peter Harvey.
9:45 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting.