Even if NFL beats Ezekiel Elliott, league suffered immense self-inflicted damage

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

When it comes to the domestic violence case of Ezekiel Elliott, Roger Goodell’s NFL investigative tactics and system did one of two things.

1. Wrongly convicted a player of a heinous act by ignoring, prohibiting or outright hiding exculpatory evidence, witnesses and opinion.

2. Allowed a player who committed a heinous act to walk free, at least for the 2017 season, by ignoring, prohibiting or outright hiding exculpatory evidence, witnesses and opinion. In doing so, the league completely hung out to dry an accuser who courageously stepped forward, but now has to watch the player star each week while having fans rip her and her story to shreds.

So which one should the league office root for here? It very well could be guilty of major elements of both points.

Ezekiel Elliott will likely play the rest of the season without missing any games due to suspension. (AP)

Federal Judge Amos Mazzant III granted Elliott and the NFL Players Association a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction on Friday. It stops the league’s six-game suspension of Elliott in its tracks. Elliott was accused by a former girlfriend, Tiffany Thompson, of abusing her during a stretch in July 2016 in Columbus, Ohio.

Elliott was already eligible to play in Dallas’ opener Sunday against the New York Giants; now he’s likely to make it through the entire season. The league is appealing and it stands to reason it will eventually be victorious, much as it was in legal battles with Tom Brady over deflate-gate.

A management-friendly court is out there somewhere. So what? Other than allowing Goodell to claim vindication at some far-off point, it’s meaningless. Vindication for what? The damage is done.

At issue here is the NFL’s system of duplicity, which Mazzant lampooned in his 22-page decision. It reads like the judge sat over his keyboard, mouth agape that some of this stuff could even occur in America.

“The question before the Court is merely whether Elliott received a fundamentally fair hearing before the arbitrator,” Mazzant wrote. “The answer is he did not.”

Local authorities declined to press charges on the case, but the NFL has a lower standard of proof. During Elliott’s appeal it was revealed that lead investigator Kia Wright Roberts, the only league official to interview Thompson, doubted Thompson’s credibility and couldn’t verify her claims via additional witnesses or evidence. Roberts stated she would have recommended against suspension.

Roberts’ opinion wasn’t included in the NFL’s initial decision and it wasn’t originally revealed to Elliott, allowing him to use it as a defense. The league essentially tried to ignore it in the hope no one would find out about it. As such, the appeal process did not allow Thompson or Goodell to be witnesses.

“Elliott was denied a fundamentally fair hearing,” Mazzant wrote. “… The arbitration record shows that the NFL, at the very least, turned a blind eye to Roberts’ dissenting opinion. This entire set of circumstances was put in front of [arbitrator Harold] Henderson. It is in this light the Court views Henderson’s decisions to exclude Thompson and Commissioner Goodell as necessary witnesses, as gross errors resulting in a fundamentally unfair hearing.”

It is well understood that NFL owners only care that Goodell keeps the league’s revenue train rolling. Moreover, they appreciate that they can hire (albeit at a high rate) a punching bag for media and fans over important issues such as player conduct, concussions and labor problems.

Still, this is complete malpractice. How they allow it to continue is mind-boggling.

Either Elliott got wronged here or Thompson did. The owners should not continue to sit idly by as Goodell oversees a heavy-handed, ill-fated system that self-inflicts such wounds. This isn’t the inflation level of a football. This is real stuff, real life. And the NFL is getting it wrong on all sides in a case alleging violence against women. The league can drape all the pink it wants on the players next month, this still happened.

Consider the fate of Thompson. The NFL believes her story. The NFL believes Elliott abused her. The NFL believes she was a victim. Yet because it couldn’t operate in an upright and upfront manner, because a federal judge believes it tried to stack the deck against Elliott, she has to sit there and be deemed a liar in the court of public opinion, watching the man the NFL believes is her abuser return to roaring crowds and national television games. The league, through its own unique combination of arrogance and incompetence, did her wrong.

This was completely avoidable. The league could still have suspended Elliott and believed in Thompson. It could have clearly explained why it didn’t follow the opinion of its investigator and leveled the suspension if it merely ran a fair and open system.

Only Elliott and Thompson known what happened between them. Everyone else is making a judgment call.

If you believe in Elliott, then you’re furious at the NFL that this advanced this far and that, even if he somehow succeeds in court after the season and never serves his suspension, he has been pegged as an abuser.

If you believe in Thompson, however, you should be even more furious at the league. It not only left an accuser unable to defend herself against the pro-Elliott publicity machine, it sends a chilling effect to any future victim of domestic violence by an NFL player, coach or staff member.

Why trust Goodell? Why trust the NFL?

“Fundamental unfairness infected this case from the beginning, eventually killing any possibility that justice would be served,” Mazzant wrote.

That’s Roger Goodell’s NFL for you. Some far-off legal reversal won’t help the damage done, that the NFL somehow managed to deny justice to both the accused and the accuser.

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