Having been burned multiple times, from Ray Rice to Josh Brown, the NFL is taking its time in its official probe of the domestic violence accusations against the Cowboys’ rookie running back. Is the league being thorough, or just prolonging things for appearances?
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The woman sounded remarkably calm, calling 911. “Um, yes, I called earlier about a domestic violence report, and I was just wondering, the lady, the dispatcher asked me if I wanted an officer out on scene right now, and if there is any way that I could have an officer out on scene? I was going to wait until tomorrow to report it, until he left …. ”
The dispatcher cut the woman off there and asked for her location.
You said it’s domestic—is this your boyfriend, husband, baby child’s father?
“My boyfriend,” she responded. “And he’s been doing it for the past five days.”
You said he hit you—where did he hit you?
“All over,” she said.
Soon two Columbus police officers were on the scene, at an apartment where Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys’ rookie running back, was holding an after-party, following the celebration of his 21st birthday, in late July. Elliott was the “boyfriend” the 911 caller had referred to.
The woman told the police she had been dating Elliott for a year and a half, and that they had lived together for three months. According to the police report, she said that the night of his birthday, when she showed up at the after-party, he forcibly yanked her out of her car by her wrist. She told police that the two of them had gotten into several fights over the five previous days, and that he had pushed her, choked her, struck her, dragged her and thrown her around.
Elliott wrote in a police statement that he had “NEVER” dated the woman, that they just had a “sexual relationship,” and that he never assaulted her. One of Elliott’s friends, who had spent most of those five days with Elliott and the woman, later said in an affidavit that he hadn’t seen any abuse. Elliot told police that the woman was upset that he had not taken her home, and that her bruises were from a bar fight she was in that night. Two other officers confirmed that there had been a bar fight earlier, and a friend who accompanied the accuser that night confirmed to the police that the accuser had been in an altercation at a bar. Three witnesses at the after-party told the police that they did not see Elliott assault the accuser. The woman who accompanied the accuser also said in an affidavit that the accuser asked her to lie to the police about Elliott yanking her wrist and pulling her out of the car.
“I’m calling the cops to ruin your career, your career is done,” the woman shouted at Elliott that night, according to one witness’s account to the police. Other witnesses, including the woman’s friend, said in affidavits that they heard something similar.
The police did not arrest Elliott, and the city attorney’s office later declined to bring charges, citing conflicting and inconsistent evidence. Robert S. Tobias, the director of the prosecution resources unit in the Columbus attorney’s office, said that his office received 462 domestic violence complaints over 2014 and 2015, and only 44—less than 10 percent—resulted in criminal charges. Often there’s simply not enough evidence for prosecutors to pursue a conviction.
The same woman also accused Elliott of domestic violence in Florida five months earlier, in February, telling police there that he had pushed her against a wall. Elliott, according to the police report, said that the woman initiated the physical confrontation and that he pushed back after she grabbed him. The Florida accusation did not result in an arrest either, for the same reason: insufficient evidence and conflicting accounts. The police referred the woman to the district attorney, but there is no record that she pursued the case.
The NFL, however, could not drop the case. Not after the Ray Rice scandal of 2014, when the public hammered the league for failing to investigate that case thoroughly enough, and for being too lenient in its punishment before video leaked of Rice punching his then-fiancée. At the time, when the league disciplined a player, it relied heavily on information from law enforcement and the legal system’s adjudication of the case.
Promising to professionalize and strengthen its domestic violence efforts, the NFL created its own investigative team in 2015 and hired Lisa Friel and Kia Roberts, former New York prosecutors who specialize in sexual assault and domestic violence cases. The league put Friel in charge of all investigations, made Roberts its lead investigator, and asked them to coordinate with its security reps: independent investigators contracted by the NFL who are stationed around the country.
When the NFL got word of the Elliott incident from the summer, Friel and Roberts began investigating. It was a messy he-said, she-said case to begin with, the kind that often does not result in an arrest or charges. It would be difficult for the NFL to determine the facts of the matter and reach a conclusion.
Then Elliott emerged as the NFL’s leading rusher, and the league fumbled another, separate domestic violence case, and the stakes seemed to get higher. The NFL could not afford to get this investigation wrong, too, not after pledging to be better, and so the Elliott case has dragged on. It’s still going, three and a half months into the season, with no end in sight.
The Cowboys declined to allow Elliott to be interviewed for this story, and Elliott’s lawyer did not return messages seeking comment. The accuser also declined to comment. And the NFL declined to speak about the specifics of Elliott’s case.
A high-ranking league official said its investigators are simply following the procedure put in place post-Ray Rice. An NFL investigation can last months, as Friel and Roberts arrange interviews, gather evidence and navigate roadblocks. The league official walked The MMQB through the NFL’s investigative process, the long and winding road the investigation takes, and how the league at least tries to tackle a complicated case like this.
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Once the NFL hears that a player—Elliott in this case—has been involved in a domestic violence incident, the investigators start with perhaps the most important aspect of their investigation: contacting the accuser and getting her side of the story. Whether she cooperates with the investigation could make or break the case.
The investigators typically send her a letter on league stationary, introducing themselves, explaining why they’re reaching out. They use the mail instead of, say, knocking on her door, because they feel it’s more respectful and professional. How would it look if the NFL were pressuring an alleged victim? “It’s not appropriate,” the league source says. “We don’t do that.”
The letter also informs the accuser that the NFL is there to help. If she’s not feeling safe, the league will call protective services. If she needs counseling, the league will make an appointment. If she needs a place to stay, the league can help shelter her, too. And all of these resources are available to her whether or not she cooperates with the investigation, according to the league official.
The accuser could very well decline to talk to the NFL. She may not want to deal with the media attention. Or she may still be in a relationship with the player, in which case she may be in an awkward spot; if the NFL were to suspend the player, she could be affected financially, too. That was the case with Janay Palmer, Ray Rice’s fiancée who later became his wife. She did speak to the NFL, but the league infamously allowed Rice to sit in on the interview.
Someone without such ties may be more willing to talk. (Elliott’s accuser is reportedly cooperating with the NFL’s investigation; to what extent The MMQB could not determine). If the accuser cooperates, the investigators travel to her location to interview her in private. The interview can last hours, as the investigators dive into the accuser’s history and her relationship with the player. To try to corroborate the woman’s story, they ask for evidence that she may have in her possession: text messages, photos, videos. They also ask if she can put them in touch with any direct witnesses, as well as “outcry witnesses”—people she told about the incident after the fact. Throughout the meeting, the investigators take notes on the accuser’s demeanor, to help evaluate her credibility.
Meanwhile, investigators are gathering as much evidence from the incident as possible. They have their security rep in the area work his or her law enforcement sources. They officially request all relevant information from the local police—incident reports, 911 calls, photographs. They ask to interview the responding officers and try reaching out to witnesses. If there are surveillance cameras in place that may have captured the incident, they try to acquire the tapes.
But the NFL has little alternative if these sources dry up. Some police departments are more helpful and forthcoming than others. Responding officers can decline to be interviewed. Witnesses, too. If the surveillance tape belongs to a private business, that business often declines to produce the tape unless the NFL produces a subpoena. And, of course, as an employer investigating one of its employees, the NFL does not have subpoena power.
“All we can do is ask,” the league source says. “We can only ask people to speak to us, explain that we’re trying to do the right thing. We’re trying to hold people accountable if they’ve misbehaved.”
That may leave the investigators in a quandary, though. If they run into trouble gathering evidence, where should they end their investigation? If the NFL suspends the player, and new information comes out later, the league could look inept. Or, worse, it could look as if it were downplaying the incident.
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Friel and Roberts followed this process as they investigated former Giants kicker Josh Brown for a domestic violence incident in May 2015 involving Brown and his then-wife, Molly. The local police in Washington state did not help the NFL much, and Molly Brown chose not to speak to league investigators. Due at least partly to those circumstances, the league suspended Brown for one game over the incident. (The NFL’s new personal conduct policy dictates that first-time domestic violence abusers receive a baseline six-game suspension, but it also allows for a lesser suspension if, as the league puts it, “mitigating factors” are involved.)
After sitting out the Giants’ 2016 season opener, Brown rejoined the team without much fanfare. Then, in mid-October, the sheriff’s office in Washington state that had investigated the case released a trove of documents, including journal entries in which Brown admitted to physically, mentally and verbally abusing his wife for years.
The public outrage began anew. The NFL had botched another domestic violence case, the headlines read. The league cares more about public relations than investigations, critics said.
New details trickled out that made the NFL look worse and worse. Deadspin pointed out that Molly Brown had outlined her history of abuse in a divorce filing, a public record. Deadspin also reported that, when someone representing the league reached out to Molly Brown, she didn’t respond because she was unsure of the person’s credentials and thus did not feel comfortable talking to them. In an interview with a Seattle radio station, the local sheriff made a similar comment, criticizing the NFL’s area security rep for the clumsy way he reached out to the police. The sheriff said that the rep didn’t identify himself as working for the NFL and didn’t use an NFL email address. The sheriff indicated that, had he known the man was working for the NFL, he would’ve given him more information.
“We make the best decisions we can based on the information we can gather,” Joe Lockhart, the NFL’s vice president of communications, said in a statement. “Clearly, we would like access to all of the information that is gathered by law enforcement but are well aware that is not always the case.”
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On Sunday, after the Cowboys lost to the Giants, snapping an 11-game win-streak, Jerry Jones circled the locker room, consoling players. He smiled now and then and had that twinkle in his eye, despite the loss. The Cowboys were still 11-2, they were still atop the NFC, and Elliott was still their running back.
Outside the locker room a few minutes later, Jones said he was unconcerned with the NFL’s ongoing investigation. “Our policy in the league is basically to satisfy that there’s not something that we don’t know about.” He flashed a smile. “Now think about what I just said. There is nothing [new]—not one thing—that anybody has said to me since training camp. There’s nothing there. No, no, not at all.”
Jones said that, through his own sources, he received information “almost immediately when the incident occurred” that, in his view, cleared Elliott. He was asked: Why then is the case still open? Is it so the league can avoid more bad publicity, on the heels of the Josh Brown scandal, by prolonging the investigation? If the NFL were to exonerate Elliott now, critics might assume the league was protecting him. If the NFL were to suspend Elliott, Cowboys fans might assume that the league was making an example of him, to compensate for mishandling the Brown case.
Elliott reportedly met with NFL investigators before the end of October, which would signal that the NFL is close to finishing its investigation. The investigators save the player interview for last, according to the league source, because they know the collective bargaining agreement requires him to cooperate, and they want to be able to question the player about all the evidence they’ve collected along the way.
Jones pointed out that the NFL could keep the investigation open as long as it wants. “I don’t worry about it,” he said, “because I don’t think there’s anything there.”
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Once the Elliott investigation ends, Friel and Roberts will meet at the league office in midtown Manhattan to review the case. Such meetings also typically include Cathy Lanier, the NFL’s new head of security, a former chief of police for Washington, D.C. The three of them will need to decide if they have “sufficient evidence” that Elliott abused the woman, enough evidence that the case would be upheld in front of an arbiter. They’ll synthesize everything they have, bat opinions back and forth and debate the credibility of Elliott versus the accuser, asking questions such as:
What did each person’s demeanor say?
Did their version of the story make sense?
Is there evidence that corroborates their story?
Is there evidence that contradicts their story?
Do they have a motive to lie?
Once the group reaches a consensus, one of them will write a report laying out the investigation’s findings and explaining how the team reached its conclusion. After a draft is completed, Friel and Roberts will revise it several times for rigor, because if Elliott is ultimately suspended, a number of lawyers will dissect the document line by line.
When Friel is satisfied, she will send the report to Todd Jones, the league’s Special Counsel for Conduct, who was hired around the same time as Friel and Roberts. Jones previously worked as the Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a federal law enforcement agency in the U.S. Department of Justice. After Jones reviews the report, he sends it to the players union and the player, who then has the opportunity to respond, either with a written statement or with another face-to-face meeting with league investigators.
Then the NFL’s investigative team will convene again, one last time, with Todd Jones running the meeting. He’ll ask, “What’s the appropriate discipline?” And they’ll go around the room, Friel, Roberts, Lanier and Jones, these former prosecutors and law enforcement figures, debating the case some more. Once they reach a consensus—to issue a suspension or not—Jones will present the report and the team’s recommendation to Goodell.
And then Goodell will levy whatever discipline against Elliott he sees fit.
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