The NFL Is Still Just Making It Up As It Goes Along

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Sometimes, there aren’t any good answers. Today, NFL officials announced that they had decided to suspend a player accused of domestic violence for six games: The same penalty they promised years ago, and then went about ignoring as they saw fit. This seemed to make people quite happy, which was all the people who run the NFL ever care about. They want to keep fans happy so they’ll keep spending, and such subsidiary aims as keeping the football press happy, or at least impressed with their strength, mainly serve to further that principal aim.

But the six-game suspension doesn’t address why the NFL was able to throw the book at Ezekiel Elliott, at least unless it gets reduced on appeal: They had a highly cooperative witness, which seemed to matter more than in previous cases when they held piles of evidence and still doled out measly suspensions. Is what happened to Tiffany Thompson six times worse than what happened to Molly Brown? Three times as bad as what happened to Janay Rice? There is no way to escape the message sent here to victims. Play our game and we’ll throw the book at a player; ignore us and we’ll blame you.

This dynamic can be seen playing out in the letter that the NFL sent to Elliott explaining his punishment, a league press call about the suspension, and the usual anonymous sources feeding NFL beat writers. For example, the league memo at no point discusses an affidavit signed by a witness, Ayrin Mason, in which she said Elliott’s ex-girlfriend, Tiffany Thompson, asked her to lie and say she saw Elliott attack her. Mason also gave prosecutors text messages, which later were released under Ohio’s public records law, which could be seen as supporting her statement.

One of the NFL’s advisors on the case, former New Jersey attorney general Pete Harvey, who now is in private practice, alluded to that in a conference call with reporters, per the league-released transcript. One problem, he said, was that Elliott’s witnesses did not cooperate with them. Harvey told reporters that the people who offered affidavits to Columbus prosecutors “declined to be interviewed by the NFL’s investigators, which raised suspicions in our minds about the veracity of these witnesses.”

(This being the NFL, and someone perhaps realizing that wasn’t the best thing to have said, an anonymous source told the Washington Post the exact opposite, saying, “The issue of cooperation or lack thereof was not considered.”)

A reporter pressed Harvey specifically on Mason’s statement and text messages. He responded by saying that, yes, Thompson had asked Mason to lie that night, but that they believed she was telling the truth when she had told them and investigators about the other times she said Elliott had hurt her. He pointed to principal city attorney Robert Tobias’s statement to USA Today, in which he said “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.” And Harvey threw in another observation: “For example, it’s uncommon for women to take photographs of their injuries the day that they occurred. [Thompson] did that.”

Harvey and NFL public-relations chief Joe Lockhart—a former White House press secretary—also talked several times about metadata. They said they had the metadata which showed what days the photos were taken, which lined up with when Thompson said Elliott hurt her, and that people saw her on that day confirmed they saw her injuries. Thompson shared those photos with people and then “had a conversation with at least one of these persons about the injury and who caused it,” Harvey said. At one point, they make sure to point out that they had the metadata and prosecutors didn’t, a mostly empty piece of chest-thumping considering that months earlier they were begging the same prosecutors to do them favors and share nonpublic documents and information (and also considering that acquiring metadata does not necessarily take savvy, sophistication, and high-tech tools).

Several times in the letter and in the press conference, the NFL honchos emphasized how much evidence they had and that Thompson cooperated. But I can’t escape the nagging question of what would have happened if she hadn’t. Would they have blamed her, as they did with Molly Brown and Nicole Holder and Janay Rice? If there is an eery repetition to all this, it’s that whoever doesn’t cooperate gets the NFL’s scorn—it’s just this time that person is the player himself, which perhaps explains why the NFL took a shot at the players’s union, blaming them for the delay in their announcement of Elliott’s punishment.

Buried at the bottom of the NFL’s memo, though, is perhaps the most telling part of all. Elliott might have to undergo counseling … or he might not.

Is there a counterargument to all this? Yes. The NFL is an employer and it can do whatever it damn well wants with it employees, as long as it stays within the lines of the relevant law and collectively-bargained agreements with the players’ union. It was the NFL owners and Goodell, though, who set themselves up for scrutiny by insisting, over and over, they would get this right, bringing in the best and most qualified independent experts and building clear, consistent standards and fair, transparent processes.

And yet, in looking over case after case, it is clear that they are continuing to just make it up as they go along. The fact that just making it up has for once brought them down on the side of the accuser and not the accused doesn’t make it any better. When Molly Brown refused to cooperate with NFL investigators—for very good reasons—the league fed reporters stories about how it had discovered that domestic violence was complicated and difficult to adjudicate. Its officials openly talked to Jane McManus about ignoring the six-game rule, and ESPN reported these numbers at the time:

Since the six-game suspension language was added to the personal conduct policy, there have been nine NFL suspensions potentially related to domestic violence. In all but two of those cases, the league has upheld suspensions that have been fewer than six games, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

This time, the NFL had a cooperative witness and a player and team owner who all but told them to go to hell. And that, it seems, made things suddenly crystal clear.

To every appearance, what matters to the NFL is that this decision makes Goodell look strong. Cooperate with him or you’ll get screwed. If the suspension is reduced on appeal—which is highly likely—Goodell will blame the union again, continuing the owners’ quest to make the only advocate for players completely irrelevant. If it doesn’t, all the better. Most importantly, everyone can feel better about having Elliott on their fantasy football teams in a few weeks, and everyone can rest assured that the NFL is against domestic violence. There will be fireworks, cheerleaders, and fans forking out money while telling themselves that the NFL is a safe and orderly place, quite unlike the real world from which it provides a respite, run by wise leaders who stand tall. In the world of NFL discipline, that’s all that matters, and all that ever has.



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