Elliott case sheds light on NFL’s misconduct policies

[Content warning: This article makes references to domestic violence.]

In the run-up to the 2017 NFL season kick-off, it was a surprise reversal in a controversial domestic violence case that dominated headlines.

U.S. District Court Judge Amos Mazzant blocked the NFL league office’s six-game suspension of star runningback Ezekiel Elliott. The NFL had banned Elliott after their in-house investigation concluded that the second-year player abused his former girlfriend Tiffany Thompson over the course of five days in July 2016. Thompson told NFL investigators that she called the police in February of 2016 after Elliott pushed her forcefully against a wall during an argument. Thompson later told the NFL that Elliott was physical on two separate occasions in that earlier timeframe.

Judge Mazzant issued a preliminary injunction, which checks the NFL’s ability to enforce their suspension of Elliott. Cornell Law’s Legal Information Institute defines an injunction as “a court order requiring a person to do or cease doing a specific action,” and a preliminary injunction as one, “that may be granted before or during trial, with the goal of preserving the status quo before final judgment.”

While appealing the league’s initial suspension ruling, the NFL Players Association, sensing a defeat in the making, filed a preemptive motion to block the final verdict. The suit claims that the league appeal process was one-sided and not in accordance with basic standards of a fair appeal. NFL Director of Investigations Kia Roberts allegedly recommended no ban for Elliott.

Roberts was the only investigator from the league who interviewed Thompson. The NFL’s Special Counsel for Investigations, Lisa Friel, subsequently stopped Roberts from meeting with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to discuss her recommendation. Judge Mazzant, in consideration of these facts, among other concerns, found that certain elements of the appeal procedure were probably unfair, and thus decided that an injunction was necessary in the interim period before he could hear the NFLPA’s case regarding the NFL’s appeal process.

The NFL promptly responded to Mazzant’s district court ruling, filing an appeal of the injunction along with an emergency stay. Sports attorney Daniel Wallach speculated in a tweet on Sept. 11, 2017 that the accompanying stay was requested because “the median duration of a Fifth Circuit appeal is 8.8 months.”

This detail is very significant because the full effect of the now-granted injunction with no emergency stay could very well be that Elliott plays the entire 2017 NFL season.

Ultimately, Elliott suited up for and shined in the Cowboys’ comprehensive, opening-day victory over the New York Giants. He gained 104 yards on 24 carries behind the famously stout Dallas offensive line on the way to a 19-3 result.

Last year, Elliot led the league with 1,631 yards gained on the ground. While Elliot was taking the league by storm, though, the NFL was conducting a lengthy investigation only now coming to the forefront.

The NFL has a troubling record with judgments on domestic violence cases. Months after surveillance video surfaced of former runningback Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancée Janay Palmer in a casino elevator, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell handed down to Rice a paltry suspension of two games to start the 2014 season. Responding to the predictable uproar, Goodell said in a press conference soon after the announcement, “We’ve dealt with it in a serious manner, and we’re very confident that this young man understands where he is and what he needs to do going forward.” The Rice debacle was one of many that have come to severely damage the league office’s reputation.

Crimes of domestic violence are as tragically law enforcement-resistant as they are staggeringly inhumane. In a 2015 National Domestic Violence Hotline survey of 637 women who had suffered domestic abuse, “two-thirds or more said they were afraid the police would not believe them or do nothing,” according to thehotline.org.

While the NFL has proven to be infamously dubious as an investigative body, fans should not conflate their poor record with the Elliot case. Whenever news gets out that charges of domestic violence have been dropped, one must very carefully review the facts before coming to potentially faulty all-or-nothing conclusions.


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