Stephen Jones: NFL should be more efficient with investigations
After more than 25 hours of discussion, including Ezekiel Elliott testifying in his own defense, the hearing on the Dallas Cowboys star running back’s appeal of his six-game suspension finally ended Thursday afternoon.
Now the wait begins for NFL arbitrator Harold Henderson to issue a decision on whether to uphold, reduce or vacate the suspension handed down after the NFL found that Elliott had violated the league’s personal conduct policy.
Elliott’s hope of a reduction or of success in federal court were improved during the proceedings that began on Tuesday, according to a source.
His camp promised controverting evidence to the league’s 13-month domestic violence investigation of Elliott, based on claims made by former girlfriend Tiffany Thompson. The possible bombshell evidence came in the testimony from Kia Roberts, director of investigations for the NFL.
Roberts recommended no suspension for Elliott following her interviews with Thompson during the investigation — a fact Roberts testified to during the appeals hearing with Henderson, according to a source.
Roberts’ recommendation of no discipline is the main reason Cowboys owner Jerry Jones expressed so much confidence in the case until the NFL announced the suspension on Aug. 11.
Jones was told by a top NFL executive that there would be no suspension, according to a source.
But Roberts’ recommendation never made it into the NFL’s final report or the official suspension letter on Aug. 11, which cited the league’s findings of three instances of domestic violence by Elliott against Thompson based on the victim’s testimony and photographic evidence.
When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell conducted a meeting to discuss discipline for Elliott, it included Lisa Friel, the senior vice president for investigations; Jeff Pash, executive vice president and general counsel; and Adolpho Birch, senior vice president of labor policy and government affairs, among others.
But Roberts was not at the meeting as Friel recommended a six-game suspension to Goodell.
During the appeal hearing there was testimony that Friel barred Roberts from the meeting, a source said.
Elliott and the NFLPA attacked Roberts’ absence as a process failure during the appeal hearing and plan to exploit it if they go to federal court to seek a temporary injunction against a suspension.
That Roberts’ recommendation didn’t make it into the report and that she wasn’t involved in the decision could be used against the NFL if a federal court case is pursued.
Now the ball is in Henderson’s court.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Thursday that Henderson is being pressured into making a decision by Monday and that a reduction is likely.
The date is key because if a decision is not made by Tuesday, Elliott could be on the field for the Sept. 10 season opener against the New York Giants. As long as Elliott is under appeal, he is eligible to play. That is the assumption the Cowboys are operating on, according to a source.
And if a ruling comes back that is unacceptable to Elliott, it could spark a sprint to federal court for a possible temporary injunction to block the suspension.
If Elliott’s original six-game suspension is upheld, he would be barred from taking part in any team activities starting on Saturday, the day of final roster cuts from 90 to 53. Elliott wouldn’t be eligible to return until the week of the Cowboys’ game against the Washington Redskins on Oct. 29.
When the league suspended Elliott on Aug. 11, after investigating claims made by Thompson, it concluded that there was “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.”
Goodell’s decision was aided by a four-member advisory committee, including 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.
Goodell also cited photographic evidence and testimony of medical professionals.
The league has no verifiable proof that it was Elliott who injured Thompson or was the source of the bruises. The pictures don’t show Elliott in the act of committing domestic violence, and there were no witnesses.
A source said the evidence would not hold up in a court of law.
The advisory committee’s finding may have boiled down to believing Thompson more than Elliott.
Elliott was never charged or arrested in the incident after the Columbus, Ohio, city attorney’s office cited inconsistent information from Thompson.