On Sunday night in Dallas, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott quite literally carried his team to an opening-week victory — running for 104 yards on 24 carries, and catching five passes for 36 yards — in a 19-3 win over the New York Giants. There was no way to ignore the impact he made on the field, which led to some awkward moments.
“I know we’ve got a lot to talk about off the field with Ezekiel Elliott,” NBC announcer Chris Collinsworth said during the first half, after Elliott picked up a first down. “You’ll forgive us tonight if we just talk about him as a football player.”
Oh, if only it were so easy.
One year ago, Elliott’s ex-girlfriend, Tiffany Thompson, accused him of multiple counts of domestic violence, both to the police in Ohio and publicly on Instagram, where she posted photos of bruises. Though the prosecutors decided not to press charges, the NFL launched a year-long investigation into her allegations. In August, the league concluded 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, 2016,” and suspended Elliott for six games.
But, thanks to a complicated legal battle, that suspension is currently in limbo. An NFL-appointed arbitrator initially upheld the suspension after Elliott appealed the decision; however, last Friday a district court judge in Texas granted Elliott an injunction because he agreed with the NFL Player’s Association (NFLPA) that “fundamental unfairness infected this case from the beginning, eventually killing any possibility that justice would be served.” In response, the NFL filed an appeal with the Fifth Circuit, and has requested an emergency motion for stay, which would essentially reinstate the suspension. There will be an expedited briefing on the stay motion this week, but it’s a long shot. For now, it seems likely that Elliott will play this entire season while the case winds its way through the courts.
So, here we are again: another NFL season, another high-profile domestic violence case serving as the league’s proverbial elephant on the field.
Three years ago, when TMZ released a video of running back Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiance (now wife) in the elevator of an Atlantic City Casino months after the NFL had suspended Rice for just two games for the incident, the way the league handles domestic violence became a topic of national debate. Suddenly, there was no way to ignore the issue. Viewers could watch a woman punched in the face by the man who said he loved her; they could watch him nonchalantly drag her limp body out of the elevator. A crime that usually happens behind closed doors now had a face, and fans didn’t want to see the perpetrator of that violence back on the field just three games into the NFL season.
So, the league went into damage control mode.
“I got it wrong in the handling of the Ray Rice matter, and I’m sorry for that,” Goodell said back in 2014. “But now I will get it right… We will get our house in order first.”
Goodell’s words sounded firm, and it was tempting to mistake his bullishness for sincerity. But since then, despite the NFL’s much-touted no-nonsense policy, it’s been hard to see any progress.
Two years ago, the Cowboys signed defensive end Greg Hardy after he had been suspended for domestic violence; when he returned to the field, Hardy told reporters reporters he was going to come out “guns blazing” and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones praised Hardy’s leadership skills. Last year, the NFL suspended New York Giants kicker Josh Brown for just one game despite the disturbing details of his alleged abuse of his wife detailed in court documents and police reports.
Now, the legal twists and turns of the Elliott case are being reported on with the breathless fervor of exit polls on Election Day, and each detail — drugs, sex tapes, conspiracy — is being wrung dry for every drop of salaciousness.
The NFL’s house is messier than ever, and nobody is better off — not the league, not the players, and certainly not the victims who allege domestic abuse. And isn’t that who this was supposed to be about all along?
The flaws in the NFL’s investigation
Elliott’s case has been intertwined in so many legal battles over the past month that it’s hard to keep them straight. But it’s important to dig into the details to discover where exactly the NFL went wrong.
In June, the NFL completed an extensive, 147-page Investigative Report on Elliot, which was co-authored by NFL Special Counsel for Investigations Lisa Friel and NFL Director of Investigations Kira Roberts. Notably, while this report was very thorough, it did not include a conclusion — in other words, there was no written recommendation or analysis of the investigation by Roberts, who was the only person on the NFL’s investigative team to actually interview the alleged victim, Thompson, or Friel.
During Elliott’s appeal hearing challenging the six-game suspension, the NFLPA wanted the NFL to make Roberts, Goodell, and Thompson available for questioning. It also wanted Harold Henderson, the arbitrator, to mandate that the NFL turn over its notes from all of its interviews with Thompson. (Roberts spoke with Thompson six times, but there were only official transcripts provided for two of those interviews; Roberts said the other four conversations were quicker and more casual than their extended sit-down interviews.)
But Henderson only required Roberts to testify; he denied the other three requests.
In the NFLPA’s eyes, this amounted to a fundamentally unfair hearing. This is, in essence, why the players’ association is accusing the NFL of a “league-orchestrated conspiracy” to cover up Roberts’ doubts obscure whether or not the NFL had the “credible evidence” required by the league’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) to reach the conclusion that resulted in the six-game suspension.
These complaints from the NFLPA intensified during the hearing, when Roberts revealed that she had significant doubts about Thompson’s credibility and didn’t think Thompson’s accusations should merit punishment. Roberts also confirmed she never met with Goodell to tell him her perspective on the case.
So, while Elliott’s initial appeal was unsuccessful because Henderson determined that the league accurately followed the CBA, which gives extensive disciplining powers to Goodell, Judge Amos L. Mazzant III in the Texas district court was far less impressed with the NFL, and, it must be said, with Henderson. Judge Mazzant issued a scathing decision granting an injunction, writing that “the circumstances of this case are unmatched by any case this Court has seen.” He ultimately accused the NFL of trying to cover up Roberts’ dissenting opinion in his 22-page order.
Consistent with its previous actions to suppress Roberts’s dissenting opinions, the NFL kept this sequence of events from the NFLPA and Elliott until the arbitration hearing. In fact, had the NFL succeeded in its overall goal, this sequence of events would still be concealed from Elliott and the NFLPA. The NFLPA filed a motion to compel the testimony of Roberts, and the NFL argued in response that her testimony was unnecessary, consistent with Friel’s testimony, and cumulative….Luckily, the NFLPA found the fairness needle in the unfairness haystack and Henderson ordered Roberts to testify. The arbitration record shows that Roberts’s testimony was everything but unnecessary, consistent, and cumulative.
The NFL is, of course, fighting back, and ultimately hoping the federal court will bail it out — much like it did during the infamous Deflategate case, when a federal court sided with the NFL after New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady played for the full 2015 season due to a district court injunction. Thanks to that court decision, Brady was required to serve his four-game suspension at the beginning of the 2016 season.
Now, Thompson’s credibility (or lack thereof) is being examined as closely as the Ideal Gas Law was in Deflategate. But it’s important to remember that, in that case, we’re not talking about slightly-deflated footballs. We’re talking about a woman who alleged that, among other things, her on-again, off-again boyfriend one morning yanked her out of bed, pushed her against the door while holding her with both hands, and choked her while they argued over an early-morning FaceTime call he had with another woman while she was sleeping next to him.
This stopped being about an alleged victim a long time ago. This is ultimately a case about a league trying to maintain every ounce of power over player discipline that it can — and a players’ association that agreed to an overly broad CBA that it’s now going to great lengths to challenge.
The disturbing details in the investigation
But what about the alleged victim whose credibility is being so thoroughly dissected? Was she really so shady and conniving that the NFL needed to go through great, conspiratorial lengths in order to cover for her just so that they could look like they were tough on domestic violence?
Well, that’s the most frustrating part in all of this. While Thompson does not meet the mythical standard of a “perfect victim,” and while the NFL’s report certainly exposes many inconsistencies in her stories, other aspects of her accusations do hold up to scrutiny.
The NFL interviewed multiple witnesses, recovered metadata from dozens of photos that Thompson took of her injuries, and recovered and reviewed thousands of text messages exchanged between Thompson and her friends and family members. The investigation paints an ugly, complicated picture that’s hardly flattering for any parties involved — and certainly doesn’t try to cover up Thompson’s flaws.
“Any concerns, any inconsistencies were put into the report,” Roberts told the NFLPA during the appeal hearing. “And by that, I mean if you look at that summary of questions that [Thompson and I] were saying back and forth, it was all included in the report.”
The league ultimately looked into five allegations of abuse between July 16 and July 22 of last year. (While the NFL’s report also includes allegations of abuse against Elliott that predate the week of July 16, 2016, the NFL was not permitted to punish Elliott for those alleged incidents because he was not an NFL employee during that time.) Investigators found enough evidence to consider three of those allegations credible, which is what contributed to Elliott’s punishment.
Thompson and Elliott met at a bar in Columbus, Ohio in January of 2015. They began a non-exclusive sexual relationship soon thereafter. Thompson says she was living with him by that fall, though Elliott denies that — essentially, he says that she was living with her parents and stayed overnight with him frequently, even though many witnesses told the league that she was in fact living with him, and she received some mail at his address.
Elliott repeatedly described the relationship as primarily a sexual one to the NFL and Columbus investigators — even telling the police in a statement regarding the allegations that they were just friends, and “NEVER dated.” But NFL investigators didn’t find that description very credible, based on the text messages they recovered in which Elliott refers to her as his “girlfriend” and suggests they may get married someday.
All parties agree that their relationship was always a volatile and non-exclusive one, filled with arguments.
Some members of Thompson’s family began suspecting that Elliott was abusive early on in the relationship, according to the NFL’s report. Multiple friends and family members told NFL investigators they had seen bruises on Thompson’s body, or heard her talk about being abused by Elliott, long before she reported allegations of abuse to the police.
Elliott is insistent that he never laid a hand on Thompson, but the NFL’s investigation found multiple text messages and photos traced through metadata that seemingly corroborate Thompson’s accounts. She also called 911 on Elliott the February before the summer in question, when she was visiting Elliott while he was training for the NFL combine in Florida. The police did not arrest Elliott or press charges that day, but even though Elliott was present when the cops responded to Thompson’s call that day, he later told investigators that the incident the NFL was looking into was the only time Thompson had ever called 911 and accused him of domestic violence.
There are inconsistencies in some of Thompson’s stories and it is certainly not possible to figure out exactly how old bruises are through photographs. Nonetheless, the two medical experts who reviewed the photographs of Thompson for the NFL ruled that her injuries were consistent with domestic abuse.
The NFL did not find Thompson’s accusations the night of July 22, which is when she called 911, to be credible, mainly because there were many witnesses in the parking lot when Elliott allegedly abused her, and none of them corroborated her story. However, some of the witnesses who say that they did not witness Elliott abusing Thompson on the night of July 22, which is when she called 911, told investigators that they observed bruises on her at other times. Text messages show her communicating with her friends and family members about what she describes as Elliott’s abusive nature months before and months after July 22.
And, while a text message that appeared to show Thompson asking a friend to lie to the police for her got a lot of publicity when Elliott’s camp made it public last summer, the NFL’s investigation showed there was more to the story; Thompson later instructed that friend not to lie for her. (While it’s notable that Roberts said during the appeal hearing that she did not believe Thompson’s full explanation of this exchange, there are other text message conversations where she tells friends to be truthful to the investigators.)
Robert Tobias, the prosecutor who decided not to go forward with charges in Columbus, told Roberts in an interview that he believed something bad had occurred between Thompson and Elliott.
“We never concluded that she was lying to us. We didn’t think that she was lying to us. There is just not enough sufficient corroborating evidence. I’ve been looking at the internet and see the comments that people have been making about her. Very judgey,” Tobias told Roberts in their interview.
He also noted that she didn’t seem like Thompson was out to get revenge against Elliott — a sentiment that Roberts also expressed to Roberts during their interviews and in text messages to friends.
“Tiffany just said that she wanted him to go get counseling. Not vindictive, didn’t seem like she had a vendetta. I feel like something definitely happened to here. She had bruising,” Tobias said.
“We couldn’t determine exactly when and how she got the bruises, so we couldn’t charge him. But that doesn’t mean something didn’t happen here.”
No one benefits from this mess
On Sunday night in Dallas, Elliott and the Cowboys were in a positive mood — not just because of their win on the field, but because their star running back was, for the time at least, free. In fact, Jones presented the whole thing as downright inspiring — yes, that’s a word he actually used.
“I think every person that was part of the Cowboys was uplifted by the decision. It was a good one,” Jones said. “Although he was playing in this game no matter what, the idea that we could have him for an extended period of time was certainly inspirational.”
Elliott is excited for a chance to clear his name — even though the ongoing court case is about the NFL’s process, not whether he committed the crimes Thompson says he did. He told reporter that he felt “relieved” at the injunction, and excited that he’ll finally get a “fair trial” and “get a chance to prove my innocence.”
Going forward, the NFLPA will no doubt continue to push what has become a familiar narrative: A crazy, jilted woman is out to destroy a rich man who doesn’t love her back. It’s a cautionary tale, in their eyes. In fact, this is exactly how the NFLPA lawyer introduced Elliott’s testimony during the appeal hearing.
By overreaching its power and leaving gaping holes in the transparency of its decision making process, the NFL has left an alleged victim — one that was hesitant to continue cooperating with the NFL multiple times because of the death threats she was receiving — out to dry, all over at worst conniving, at best sloppy, procedural errors. Why didn’t Friel and Roberts write a conclusion to their report? Why didn’t those in charge provide a forum for Roberts to talk to Goodell directly about her reservations? Why didn’t the NFL willingly hand over its notes about Thompson to Elliott’s team? Why did they not seem prepared to in any way defend their ruling, when the holes in the case were so easy to anticipate?
One of the things that really set this investigation apart from the others was that Thompson actually cooperated with the NFL. The league certainly hasn’t acted in a way that would inspire other victims to feel safe working with them in the future; intimate details of Thompson’s private life are all over the internet, Cowboys fans are constantly harassing her, and her credibility is a subject of debate in media circles, in the stands, and in the court room.
Meanwhile, players have no reason to trust that NFL investigations will be transparent going forward, the league’s premiere franchise is in flux, and millions upon millions of dollars have been spent on court cases — money that could have been much better spent by, say, donating to domestic violence shelters. And the league is scrambling to cover its bases — it even went back and increased Josh Brown’s suspension from last season, even though he’s not in the league anymore.
The NFL said that it would get it right the next time it looked at a domestic violence case, but all it has done is wrong everyone involved in the process.