Stephen Jones: NFL should be more efficient with investigations
It’s been a long wait and the results were relatively surprising to some.
Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was suspended six games by the NFL for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, a league spokesman announced Friday.
The decision came nearly 13 months after the league started investigating Elliott, a former Ohio State star, following domestic violence accusations by a former girlfriend, Tiffany Thompson, in five alleged incidents in a six-day period in July 2016.
Elliott, who denied the allegations, wasn’t arrested or charged. In September, the Columbus, Ohio, City Attorney’s Office said it declined to approve criminal charges because of conflicting and inconsistent information in the evidence.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made his decision after soliciting recommendations from a four-person independent panel of law enforcement and medical personnel. The panel found that Elliott injured Thompson in three separate incidents.
Per the collective bargaining agreement, a player may be disciplined even if not charged or convicted “if the credible evidence establishes that you engaged in conduct prohibited by this personal conduct policy.” Prohibited conduct includes “actual or threatened physical violence against another person.”
The suspension has drawn the ire of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who has said he has seen all the evidence and believed the league had no cause to suspend Elliott for domestic violence or any the issues.
Jones is extremely upset about the commissioner’s decision and is considering all avenues of recourse, according to a source.
Elliott will appeal the suspension to Goodell in hopes of getting it reduced or overturned.
In a Twitter post Friday night, Elliott issued a statement:
“I am both surprised and disappointed by the NFL’s decision today, and I strongly disagree with the League’s findings.
“I recognize the distraction and disruption that all of this has caused my family, friends, teammates, the Dallas Cowboys organization as well as my fans — for that I am sincerely sorry.
“I admit that I am far from perfect, but I plan to continue to work very hard, on and off the field, to mature and earn the great opportunity that I have been given.”
Elliott’s representatives, attorneys Frank Salzano and Scott Rosenblum, earlier Friday blasted the NFL for “factual inaccuracies and erroneous conclusions” while promising that “a slew of credible and controverting evidence will come to light” during the appeals process.
Elliott has three business days to file notice of appeal. A hearing must be scheduled within 10 days of receipt of notice of appeal.
He could also take the league to court and seek a temporary injunction.
Elliott denied all allegations of domestic violence, but compounded his scrutiny with other concerning incidents, including pulling down a woman’s top at a Dallas St. Patrick’s Day Parade and allegedly being involved in an altercation at a Dallas bar just days before the start of training camp.
According to the NFL, league investigators interviewed more than a dozen witnesses, including Thompson and Elliott. The league also consulted with medical experts. League investigators examined all available evidence, including photographic and digital evidence, thousands of text messages and other records of electronic communications.
In a letter to Elliott advising him of the decision, Todd Jones, the NFL’s special counsel for conduct, said these advisers “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, 2016.”
After reviewing the record, and having considered the views of the independent advisers, the commissioner determined the credible evidence established that Elliott engaged in conduct that violated NFL policy.
Additionally, the league considered the St. Patrick’s Day incident and determined that it showed a continued pattern of bad decision-making by Elliott in respect to women. The league did not believe it warranted an additional suspension.
The league did not consider any other incidents in the matter.
Elliott was also told in the letter than “any additional violations” of NFL policy “may result in further suspension or potential banishment.”
It was not a case of “he said, she said” in the mind of the NFL. The suspension was based on a thorough investigation and credible evidence, including some the Columbus prosecutor didn’t have, said Peter Harvey, a former attorney general of New Jersey and one of four independent advisers who helped counsel Goodell.
“There were over 100 exhibits to the investigation,” Harvey said in a conference call with news media Friday. “The investigative report exceeded 160 pages. We also reviewed, each of us individually, the submissions by Mr. Elliott’s representative. We studied both; we examined very carefully the defense arguments, and we came to the conclusion — at least, I reached the conclusion individually — that Mr. Elliott engaged in physical force against Ms. Thompson, and that it caused injury.”
The burden of proof for the NFL is not the same as the Columbus prosecutor’s office would have faced in a criminal trial. Still it was bigger than “he said, she said.”
“It became a lot more than ‘he said, she said,’ ” Harvey said. “For example, it’s uncommon for women to take photographs of their injuries the day that they occurred. She did that. She sent those photographs to third parties. The examination of the meta-data in her phone revealed the date and time on which those photographs were taken. They were taken the same day as Ms. Thompson alleged she was injured by Mr. Elliott.”
Also, he added, “there were third parties who observed injuries on her body and in real time, on the same day, she had a conversation with at least one of these persons about the injury and who caused it. In addition to that, the league brought in two medical experts who examined the photographs and offered expert opinions with respect to the timing of the injury. These medical experts corroborated many of the statements that Ms. Thompson made.”
Conversely, the NFL said it gave Elliott an opportunity to dispute the evidence, but his team of representatives only came up with alternate theories and no real explanations.
“Mr. Elliott’s representatives argued in a meeting that maybe Ms. Thompson fell down stairs,” Harvey said. “There was no witness to say she fell down stairs, and there were no photographs of her falling down stairs.
“Mr. Elliott’s representatives suggested that maybe because she was a server, what is called bottle service, that 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 a bruise to her eye, and perhaps other bruises on her body, were sustained in that altercation. The NFL’s 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 in any other way. Mr. Elliott’s representatives also suggested that maybe someone else did it, except there was never someone else who was revealed and identified as the person who would have done this.”
As Elliott and his representatives continued to present alternate theories, Harvey said none were supported by any witness, any document or any substantive evidence.
And logic suggested to Harvey that Elliott was only person who could have harmed Thompson.
“What the NFL investigators learned was that on at least four nights between July 16th and July 21st, Mr. Elliott and Ms. Thompson stayed together in the same apartment in the same bedroom,” Harvey said. “And so these injuries did not just, at least in my judgment, magically appear on her body. So while alternative theories are interesting, in my judgment they have to be supported by evidence and that was lacking in this particular situation.”
The suspension could be costly for Elliott.
Elliott stands to lose $93,000 salary plus a possible $240,000 in signing bonus for each game he misses, according to spotrac.com. Another $8.15 million in contract guarantees will also void.
Any missed games by Elliott is a setback for the Cowboys, whose offense is built around the 2016 NFL leading rusher and the ground game.
After opening the season at home against the New York Giants, who swept the series last year, the Cowboys play at the Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals before home games against the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers heading into the Week 6 bye. They play at the San Francisco 49ers after the bye in Elliott’s final game on suspension.
If Elliott does not appeal, his suspension will begin Sept. 2, the day of final roster reductions for NFL teams. He is eligible to participate in all preseason practices and games. But then he will be barred from the Cowboys’ practice facility.
Elliott will be eligible to return to the team’s active roster on Monday, Oct. 23. His first possible game would be at Washington.
Darren McFadden would replace Elliott in the starting lineup with Rod Smith, Alfred Morris and Ronnie Hillman serving as the backups.