On Aug. 11, the NFL finally announced a six-game suspension for Ezekiel Elliott to start this season, after an investigation spanning more than a year. The suspension stems from domestic violence allegations made against Elliott in July 2016.
A woman who identified herself as Elliott’s ex-girlfriend filed a police report claiming Elliott had been abusive over the course of five days in July 2016. She filed two separate reports with the Columbus Police Department. Witnesses who claimed to have been present did not corroborate her statements, and police and prosecutors decided not to bring charges against Elliott.
Here’s where things stand for Elliott and the Cowboys moving forward.
Why wasn’t Elliott charged?
Elliott’s accuser called police on July 22, 2016 to report a series of violent altercations with Elliott. Police did not arrest or charge Elliott at the time because they couldn’t confirm the woman’s version of the events or whether or not she and Elliott ever lived together. The officers who responded to the 911 call referred her to the Columbus City Attorney’s Office, according to the police report.
The prosecutor determined after reviewing the evidence that the “conflicting and inconsistent information” was not sufficient to charge Elliott.
After the City Attorney’s Office concluded its investigation, it released all of the evidence collected, including witness statements, copies of text messages, and photographs of Elliott’s accuser’s injuries. Those documents showed that she was not truthful about the events of July 22.
On the night in question, the woman texted her friend who had accompanied her that evening and asked her to lie to police about what had occurred.
“If they ask he dragged me out of my car,” the text read. The friend later texted Elliott’s accuser to ask if she wanted her to lie. The accuser said yes.
The witness statements from that night contradicted her version of events, too. Of the five eyewitnesses who gave statements, including the woman’s friend, none corroborated Elliott’s accuser’s story. All five witnesses said no contact occurred between the woman and Elliott on that night.
The friend also confirmed that the woman had been involved in a physical altercation with another woman at a club earlier in the evening. Elliott told police that the woman’s bruises were the result of that fight.
Columbus prosecutor Robert S. Tobias told USA Today in October 2016 that he believed Elliott had been physical with his accuser but that his office didn’t have enough evidence to bring charges.
“For the Ezekiel Elliott matter, I personally believe 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. Saying something happened versus having sufficient evidence to criminally charge someone are two completely different things. Charging decisions are taken very seriously and we use best efforts to conduct thorough and detailed investigations,” Tobias wrote in an email to USA Today.
Why would the league suspend Elliott even though he was never charged?
The league’s policy does not rely on the same burden of proof as the legal system does. The personal conduct policy says that “persons who fail to live up to this standard of conduct are guilty of conduct detrimental and subject to discipline, even where the conduct itself does not result in conviction of a crime.”
The league is fully within its rights to suspend Elliott for conduct detrimental to the league, even though he wasn’t charged.
The NFL has a public relations problem when it comes to its handling of violence against women, and for good reason. The league has been inconsistent in doling out discipline.
In July 2014, Roger Goodell initially issued a two-game suspension to Ray Rice after Rice knocked his then-fiancée out in an elevator. The light suspension was reportedly the result of lobbying by the Ravens owner. Rice received an indefinite suspension and was cut by the Ravens after TMZ released a video of the incident.
With Elliott’s suspension, the NFL sets an example and illustrates that even a popular player isn’t above the league’s rules and consequences for violating them.
What did the NFL find in its investigation?
Elliott’s accuser made false statements to police about the night of July 22, 2016. But the NFL believed there was credible evidence that Elliott had been violent toward her three separate times earlier that week.
The league’s investigation reviewed police reports, witness statements, photographic evidence, texts and other metadata. It also interviewed Elliott, the accuser, and a dozen witnesses.
In the NFL’s letter to Elliott, it says the four external advisers to the investigation “individually were of the view that there is substantial and persuasive evidence supporting a finding that you engaged in physical violence against (the accuser) on multiple occasions during the week of July 16, 2016.”
Former Attorney General of New Jersey Peter Harvey, an independent adviser appointed by the league, spoke to the media via phone about what they learned over the course of the investigation. Harvey said that he came to the conclusion that Elliott had been physically violent toward his former girlfriend.
Harvey said it “raised suspicions” when witnesses who had given affidavits did not want to be interviewed by the NFL. He was also struck by an inability of Elliott’s representatives to explain the accuser’s injuries any other way, even with the bar fight she was reportedly in earlier in the evening on July 22, 2016.
“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,” Harvey said. “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.”
The letter the league sent to Elliott suggests that Goodell shares that sentiment.
“However, in the Commissioner’s judgment, there has been no persuasive evidence presented on your behalf with respect to how (the accuser’s) obvious injuries were incurred other than conjecture based on the presence of some of her bruising, which pre-dates your arrival in Columbus on July 16, 2016,” the letter read.
In another incident reviewed by the NFL, Elliott was caught on video lifting up a woman’s top in public at a St. Patrick’s Day parade. Elliott was not charged or arrested, and the league said it wasn’t a factor in Elliott’s suspension. The NFL did, however, say in its letter to Elliott that the behavior was “inappropriate and disturbing, and reflected a lack of respect for women.”
Elliott’s accuser also filed an incident report against Elliott for simple battery with the Aventura (Fla.) Police Department in Feb. 2016. That case was suspended, and Elliott was not charged. The league did not consider that case in its investigation because it happened before he was in the NFL.
Why did Elliott get a six-game suspension when other players didn’t?
Six games is the baseline punishment for first-time offenders who commit domestic violence. This standard was established after the league botched its handling of the Rice situation.
With Rice, the league issued a two-game suspension that was later changed to an indefinite ban after the video of Rice knocking out his then-fiancee went public. Rice’s wife, the victim, was present at his disciplinary hearing and gave a statement in support of her husband.
Goodell admitted he “didn’t get it right” with Rice’s discipline, and the league revised its domestic violence policy as a result and instituted that six-game threshold for players who violate it.
Greg Hardy was accused, and initially convicted, of domestic violence against a former girlfriend. The complaint alleged that Hardy hit her, dragged her, and threw her on a futon covered with firearms. Hardy’s conviction was overturned on appeal, in part because his accuser did not cooperate with prosecutors.
She also did not cooperate with the league’s investigation. Still, Hardy was suspended for 10 games, which is more than the baseline. The policy allows for that if there are “aggravating factors.” But his suspension was reduced to four games on appeal.
Perhaps the most shocking application of the personal conduct policy was the league’s decision to issue a one-game suspension to former Giants kicker Josh Brown after he was arrested for domestic violence against his wife. Brown referred to the incident that led to his arrest as “just a moment,” but police records showed that Brown had been accused of more than 20 acts of violence against his now-former wife.
The NFL defended the minimal consequences for Brown based on the fact that his former wife did not cooperate with the league’s investigation. The league later re-opened its investigation when documents were released in which Brown admitted to abusing his wife repeatedly.
Elliott’s accuser did cooperate with the league’s investigation into her allegations. She met with league investigators, who found her version of events credible even when taking into account her false statement to police on July 22.
The letter to Elliott announcing his suspension also noted that a lack of cooperation from Elliott wasn’t a factor. If Elliott had failed to cooperate, his suspension might have been longer.
Why did the investigation take so long?
Elliott and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones both lamented the length of the league’s investigation. It took over a year for a few reasons, including the NFLPA waiting until May to turn over Elliott’s phone records and other relevant documents to the NFL.
An NFL investigation into player conduct involves several moving parts. The league won’t even begin its inquiry until law enforcement finishes its process and determines whether or not to file charges. For Elliott, that happened when the Columbus City Attorney’s Office declined to pursue charges against him in Sept. 2016.
League investigators interviewed 12 different witnesses, including Elliott and his accuser, and reviewed thousands of text messages related to the domestic violence allegations. The text messages available to league investigators exceeded what law enforcement had to work with during its initial investigation, according to The Washington Post.
The NFL also reviewed forensic photographic evidence and consulted with two medical experts to determine the timeframe in which Elliott’s accuser’s injuries were likely to have occurred. The NFL said in its letter to Elliott that on three occasions the medical experts agreed photographs of the woman’s injuries looked “recent and consistent” with her version of what happened.
Who made the decision to suspend Elliott?
The decision to suspend Elliott was Goodell’s alone.
Goodell notably did not participate in the interviews conducted with Elliott or his accuser, according to Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio. Harvey also said that the group of advisers spoke to Goodell individually to give him their opinions. Article 46 of the current collective bargaining agreement gives Goodell absolute power over player discipline.
The actual investigation was undertaken by several people. The league had multiple investigators talk to witnesses and work through the evidence.
A panel of independent advisers interviewed Elliott and evaluated the findings of the investigation. Those four people were Harvey, former player and Hall of Famer Kenneth Houston, Women of Color Network CEO Tonya Lovelace, and former United States Attorney and Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Jo White. White was also instrumental in the Saints’ Bountygate investigation.
What happens next?
Elliott’s suspension doesn’t kick in until the regular season starts. Elliott is able to remain with the Cowboys and practice until the regular season begins. He is also permitted to play in preseason games. Once the regular season begins, he won’t be allowed in the facility or to participate in any team activities.
Elliott officially filed an appeal on Tuesday. The hearing will take place on Aug. 29. But once the hearing is completed, there’s no timetable for a decision from the NFL.
A foundation of Elliott’s appeal will be to call his accuser’s credibility into question, according to Clarence Hill Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The woman’s false statement to police about the events of the night of July 22, 2016, as well as her request that her friend lie to police on her behalf will surely be a part of it.
The information Hill obtained was part of the league’s 160-page report detailing the findings of the investigation. According to those documents, Lisa Friel, the NFL’s lead investigator, believed Elliott’s accuser also misled the NFL during its investigation. As a result, Friel would not endorse the woman’s credibility.
Included in the league’s report of its findings is the revelation that the woman admitted to discussing the possibility of releasing videos of herself and Elliott having sex, according to Yahoo! Sports’ Charles Robinson. She and a friend spoke via text about using the videos for blackmail or selling them for a profit. The woman told investigators that she did not intend to blackmail Elliott, but this is likely to come up in Elliott’s appeal as well.
Elliott filed a report with the Frisco, Texas Police Department in Sept. 2016 alleging that his accuser had harassed him, per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. Elliott said she called him more than 50 times over the span of a few hours and had hacked into his email account. That case is no longer active.
Henderson has three options: overturn the suspension, uphold the six-game suspension, or reduce the number of games Elliott is suspended. If the suspension is upheld or reduced, Elliott could file a federal lawsuit and get an injunction that would let him play until the case is litigated. But with Week 1 of the season just around the corner, time is running short.
In Hardy’s case, Henderson determined that the 10-game suspension issued by the league was excessive. Henderson reduced Hardy’s suspension to four games. Henderson upheld Peterson’s suspension. Both Peterson and Hardy were suspended before the league adopted its current domestic violence policy in Dec. 2014.
If Elliott’s six-game suspension stands, he will lose $559,193 in game checks.
How long will this last?
It depends on two things: when a decision on his appeal is made and what the decision ends up being.
If Elliott does take the matter to court, it could take some time.
The best we can do to project how much time this may take is look at a similar appeal. There’s clearly a big difference between domestic violence and deflating footballs, but because these are actually labor law matters, the process would be the same for Tom Brady and Elliott.
Brady served a four-game suspension to start the 2016 season for his role in the Deflategate controversy. The league announced Brady’s suspension on May 11, 2015, and the NFLPA filed an appeal on Brady’s behalf on May 14. The appeal was set for June 23, and Goodell announced that he would uphold the suspension on June 28.
Brady filed a federal lawsuit, and nearly a year later the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals eventually determined Goodell did have the authority to issue the suspension. Brady announced on July 15, 2016 that he would accept the suspension and not take the case to the Supreme Court.
We’ll just have to wait and see how long Elliott’s will take.
Who else has been involved in the situation?
Elliott, who has maintained his innocence throughout this process, responded swiftly via his personal Twitter account after the league’s decision was announced:
Elliott’s attorneys also released a statement on Friday.
“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,” the statement read in part.
Jones was reportedly “furious” about the league’s decision, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Jones had maintained that he did not expect Elliott to face discipline.
“There’s nothing,” Jones told USA Today in July. “I have reviewed everything. There is absolutely nothing, not one thing I’ve seen that has anything to do with domestic violence. I’ve seen nothing.”
On the day Elliott filed his appeal, Jones declined to comment.
“I don’t have anything to say about any of the appeal or anything about that issue, today,” Jones said via the team’s website. “But certainly I’ll be visiting with you guys about it in the future. Right now, today, is just not the time for me to talk about it.”
Why are the NFL and NFLPA trading barbs about Elliott’s case?
The NFL and NFLPA are engaging in a war of words via Twitter about the situation:
The league isn’t happy with Elliott’s plan to discredit his accuser in his appeal or the NFLPA’s role in it. While the record shows that the woman was dishonest at times, shifting blame to a victim is “shameful,” in the words of NFL Executive Vice President of Communications Joe Lockhart.
On the NFLPA side, it simply said the league is lying and isn’t leaking derogatory information about Elliott’s accuser to the media. This contentious back-and-forth could get even uglier before this whole thing is settled.
Now Elliott, Jones, and everyone else just have to wait until Elliott’s appeal to see what happens.