League’s lengthy El­liott review re­sults in six-game ban

The Washington Post - - SPORTS - MARK MASKE

Three years af­ter com­ing un­der in­tense scru­tiny and with­er­ing crit­i­cism for its han­dling of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence cases in­volv­ing sev­eral prom­i­nent play­ers, the NFL handed out one of its harsh­est penal­ties to one of its big­gest on-field stand­outs Fri­day. The league sus­pended Dal­las Cow­boys run­ning back Ezekiel El­liott for the first six games of the reg­u­lar sea­son with­out pay for a pair of al­leged in­ci­dents in­volv­ing women.

The penalty was im­posed by NFL Com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell af­ter a lengthy process in which league in­ves­ti­ga­tors in­ter­viewed El­liott’s for­mer girl­friend mul­ti­ple times, ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with the case, and in which Good­ell re­ceived in­put from four out­side ad­vis­ers.

The NFL in­ter­viewed more than a dozen wit­nesses, ac­cord­ing to the per­son fa­mil­iar with the case. It con­tacted oth­ers, but they were un­will­ing to cooperate. League in­ves­ti­ga­tors stud­ied thou­sands of text mes­sages, more than were avail­able to Colum­bus, Ohio, law en­force­ment of­fi­cials who first in­ves­ti­gated the claims by El­liott’s for­mer girl­friend of a vi­o­lent in­ci­dent dur­ing the sum­mer of 2016. The league also re­lied on ma­te­rial made pub­licly avail­able on­line by au­thor­i­ties in Colum­bus and had ex­perts an­a­lyze pic­tures to de­ter­mine when they were taken.

“The con­clu­sions were not based on he said/she said,” the per­son with knowl­edge of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion said. “It was an anal­y­sis of the ev­i­dence.”

El­liott was ac­cused of what the NFL’s let­ter called “mul­ti­ple in­stances of phys­i­cal vi­o­lence” against his then-girl­friend in July 2016 in Colum­bus. El­liott was not ar­rested nor charged with a crime.

The lead at­tor­ney in Colum­bus who eval­u­ated the al­le­ga­tions, Robert S. Tobias, told USA To­day last Oc­to­ber he per­son­ally be­lieved 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.”

Ac­cord­ing to a copy of a let­ter from B. Todd Jones, the NFL’s chief dis­ci­plinary of­fi­cer, to El­liott, ob­tained by The Washington Post, the league’s pun­ish­ment also cov­ers an

in­ci­dent from ear­lier this year. While watch­ing a St. Pa­trick’s Day pa­rade in March in Dal­las, El­liott “pulled down the shirt of a young woman, ex­pos­ing and touch­ing her breast,” the NFL’s let­ter said. “This in­ci­dent was cap­tured on video and posted on so­cial me­dia. Again, no ar­rest was made nor was a com­plaint filed by the young woman.”

No other in­ci­dents in­volv­ing El­liott, in­clud­ing re­cent al­le­ga­tions about his in­volve­ment in a scuf­fle in a Dal­las bar, fac­tored into his pun­ish­ment, ac­cord­ing to the per­son with knowl­edge of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of the sen­si­tiv­ity of the topic.

“It didn’t fac­tor into ag­gra­vat­ing cir­cum­stances,” the per­son said. “It didn’t have any im­pact on dis­ci­pline.”

The per­son also dis­missed pub­lic spec­u­la­tion this week by for­mer NFL player Cris Carter that El­liott’s pun­ish­ment would be based in part on a lack of co­op­er­a­tion with league in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

“The is­sue of co­op­er­a­tion or lack thereof was not con­sid­ered,” the per­son said, and added: “We did not con­sider any­thing out­side of what hap­pened last July and St. Pa­trick’s Day. What he did there is a vi­o­la­tion of our pol­icy.”

A writ­ten state­ment re­leased by El­liott’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives to me­dia out­lets sug­gested that El­liott will ap­peal, say­ing: “Dur­ing the up­com­ing weeks and through the ap­peal a slew of ad­di­tional cred­i­ble and con­tro­vert­ing ev­i­dence will come to light.”

The state­ment said El­liott and his rep­re­sen­ta­tives are “ex­tremely disappointed with the NFL’s de­ci­sion,” and added: “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.”

Ac­cord­ing to the state­ment, pros­e­cu­tors in Colum­bus and NFL in­ves­ti­ga­tors con­cluded that El­liott’s ac­cuser was ly­ing about one al­le­ga­tion of El­liott pulling her from a car and as­sault­ing her. The state­ment also said that NFL med­i­cal ex­perts con­cluded “many of her in­juries pre­dated the week in ques­tion.”

The six-game sus­pen­sion rep­re­sents the base­line penalty for a do­mes­tic vi­o­lence of­fense un­der the terms of the sport’s re­vised per­sonal con­duct pol­icy. That pol­icy was rat­i­fied in De­cem­ber 2014 on the heels of that year’s con­tro­ver­sies over cases in­volv­ing Ray Rice, Adrian Peter­son and Greg Hardy.

El­liott is not the first player to re­ceive a six-game sus­pen­sion un­der the re­vised pol­icy, but he is, by far, the high­est-pro­file player to be given such a pun­ish­ment since the pol­icy was re­worked.

El­liott was the NFL’s lead­ing rusher last sea­son as a rookie and a key piece of a Cow­boys team with grand de­signs of reach­ing the Su­per Bowl this sea­son.

His ap­peal, if he files one, would be heard and re­solved by Good­ell or a per­son ap­pointed by him, un­der the league’s dis­ci­plinary pro­ce­dures.

El­liott would lose just un­der $559,193 if the sus­pen­sion stands, or six-sev­en­teenths of his 2017 salary of a lit­tle more than $1.584 mil­lion.

“With re­spect to dis­ci­pline for vi­o­la­tions that in­volve phys­i­cal force against a woman in the con­text of an in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship, the [per­sonal con­duct] Pol­icy is clear — a first vi­o­la­tion sub­jects the vi­o­la­tor to a base­line sus­pen­sion with­out pay of six games, with con­sid­er­a­tion given to any ag­gra­vat­ing or mit­i­gat­ing fac­tors,” the NFL said in its let­ter to El­liott.

“Af­ter re­view­ing the record, and hav­ing con­sid­ered the ad­vice of the in­de­pen­dent ad­vi­sors on this point, the Com­mis­sioner has de­ter­mined that the ev­i­dence does not sup­port find­ing ei­ther mit­i­gat­ing or ag­gra­vat­ing fac­tors.”

El­liott’s for­mer girl­friend in­volved in the do­mes­tic vi­o­lence al­le­ga­tions spoke to the NFL’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors “mul­ti­ple times,” ac­cord­ing to the per­son fa­mil­iar with the process, say­ing that a num­ber of in­ter­views were “in per­son.”

The per­son char­ac­ter­ized the league’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion as ex­haus­tive, stress­ing that pri­vate or­ga­ni­za­tions can im­pose their own stan­dards of con­duct upon em­ploy­ees beyond what is done or not done by law en­force­ment en­ti­ties. The NFL stressed when it en­acted its re­vised per­sonal con­duct pol­icy in 2014 that it would con­duct its own in­ves­ti­ga­tions of cases.

Good­ell did not par­tic­i­pate for­mally in the June 26 meet­ing in New York, pre­vi­ously re­vealed by Cow­boys owner Jerry Jones, in which El­liott and his rep­re­sen­ta­tives met with league of­fi­cials. That meet­ing was over­seen by B. Todd Jones, formerly the di­rec­tor of the Bureau of Al­co­hol, To­bacco, Firearms and Ex­plo­sives be­fore be­com­ing the NFL’s chief dis­ci­plinary of­fi­cer.

The league’s four out­side ad­vis­ers in the case also at­tended. They were iden­ti­fied in the league’s let­ter to El­liott as Peter Har­vey, the for­mer at­tor­ney gen­eral of New Jersey; for­mer NFL safety Ken Hous­ton, a mem­ber of the Pro Foot­ball Hall of Fame; Tonya Lovelace, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Women of Color Net­work, Inc.; and Mary Jo White, a for­mer fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor and for­mer chair of the Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion.

Good­ell made the dis­ci­plinary rul­ing in the El­liott case af­ter con­sult­ing in­di­vid­u­ally with each of the ad­vis­ers. The ad­vis­ers had a con­sen­sus opinion but did not make a for­mal rec­om­men­da­tion to Good­ell as a group, ac­cord­ing to the per­son with knowl­edge of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, who added that the league had learned from its mis­steps in the Rice case in 2014. The league also was crit­i­cized for its han­dling of a case last year in­volv­ing New York Giants place kicker Josh Brown, in which he earned a one-game sus­pen­sion af­ter the league be­came aware of ac­cu­sa­tions by his for­mer wife that he’d been phys­i­cally vi­o­lent to­ward her.

“We’ve made sig­nif­i­cant progress in hav­ing the right peo­ple in the room. That didn’t hap­pen in the Ray Rice case,” the per­son said, adding of the length of the El­liott in­ves­ti­ga­tion, “We felt very strongly it was im­por­tant to get this right and be thor­ough and ex­haus­tive.”

The length of the process, the per­son said, also stemmed in part from a wait from De­cem­ber un­til May for El­liott and his rep­re­sen­ta­tives to sup­ply cer­tain in­for­ma­tion and ma­te­ri­als.

The league’s let­ter also said: “Each of these in­ci­dents in­volved al­le­ga­tions of con­duct that is ex­pressly pro­hib­ited by the League’s Per­sonal Con­duct Pol­icy, in­clud­ing ‘[a]ctual or threat­ened phys­i­cal vi­o­lence against an­other per­son.’ Even when a player is not charged with a crime, ‘ he may still be found to have vi­o­lated the pol­icy if the cred­i­ble ev­i­dence es­tab­lishes that he en­gaged in con­duct pro­hib­ited by this Per­sonal Con­duct Pol­icy.’

“As the Pol­icy states, ‘[i]t is not enough sim­ply to avoid be­ing found guilty of a crime. We are all held to a higher stan­dard and must con­duct our­selves in a way that is re­spon­si­ble, pro­motes the val­ues of the NFL, and is law­ful.’”

Jerry Jones pre­vi­ously said he did not be­lieve that El­liott’s case mer­ited a sus­pen­sion. He was ex­tremely up­set by the rul­ing, ac­cord­ing to some within the league.

The NFL Play­ers As­so­ci­a­tion said in a writ­ten state­ment: “We are re­view­ing the de­ci­sion and have been in touch with Ezekiel and his rep­re­sen­ta­tives to con­sider all op­tions.”

The NFLPA re­peat­edly chal­lenged the league, both through the ap­peals process and in court, in cases un­der the per­sonal con­duct pol­icy such as those in­volv­ing Rice, Peter­son and Hardy, and un­der the league’s com­pet­i­tive rules in the in­fa­mous De­flate­gate case that re­sulted in the four-game sus­pen­sion of New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots quar­ter­back Tom Brady.

The union has sought to re­duce Good­ell’s power to dis­ci­pline play­ers and re­solve their dis­ci­plinary ap­peals. Good­ell has been adamant about re­tain­ing his power in those ar­eas but did ap­point out­siders to re­solve ap­peals in some cases, such as Rice’s. The league and union nearly struck a sep­a­rate deal to mod­ify the player-dis­ci­pline process and Good­ell’s role in it, but those ne­go­ti­a­tions col­lapsed at the last minute. The is­sue is likely to be ad­dressed in the sport’s next col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment. The cur­rent CBA runs through 2020.


The NFL in­ves­ti­gated Cow­boys run­ning back Ezekiel El­liott for al­le­ga­tions of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.


Cow­boys run­ning back Ezekiel El­liott led the NFL in rush­ing last year as a rookie. He has in­di­cated he might ap­peal his sus­pen­sion.

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