NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was aware that one of his lead investigators believed Ezekiel Elliott shouldn’t be disciplined before the Dallas running back was suspended for six games in a domestic violence case, league spokesman Brian McCarthy said Friday.
McCarthy disputed a key claim in a lawsuit filed by the players’ union on behalf of Elliott seeking to vacate an upcoming ruling on an appeal. McCarthy says Goodell knew of investigator Kia Roberts’ contention that Elliott’s accuser wasn’t credible before deciding to suspend Elliott.
“That Kia Roberts’ information was not provided to others, that’s categorically false,” McCarthy said. “Her views were represented. The commissioner was aware of her views, aware of many other people’s views.”
Elliott, the NFL’s 2016 rushing leader as a rookie, was suspended after the league concluded he used physical force last summer against Tiffany Thompson, his girlfriend at the time.
Arbitrator Harold Henderson, appointed by Goodell, is expected to rule on Elliott’s appeal soon. Attorneys for the 22-year-old and the players’ union said in a request for a temporary restraining order filed Friday that they believe Henderson will reject the appeal.
If Henderson affirms any part of the suspension, Elliott will need U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant to grant the restraining order to be eligible for the opener Sept. 10 against the New York Giants. The first hearing is set for Tuesday in Sherman, Texas, about 65 miles north of Dallas.
Prosecutors in Columbus, Ohio, where Elliott starred for Ohio State, cited conflicting evident in not pursuing the case, but the NFL investigated for more than a year.
According to the letter Elliott received informing him of the suspension three weeks ago, the NFL believed he used “physical force” three times in a span of five days in an apartment in July 2016, resulting in injuries to Thompson’s face, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, wrists, hips and knees.
Elliott denied Thompson’s allegations under oath in an appeal hearing that spanned three days. The hearing ended Thursday, about 12 hours before the lawsuit was filed.
The lawsuit says the NFL’s appeals process is “fundamentally unfair” because Henderson denied a request by Elliott’s representatives to have Thompson testify.
The suit accuses NFL special counsel Lisa Friel of withholding information from Goodell and four experts who advised the commissioner before his ruling, and says Henderson erred in not compelling Goodell to testify at the appeal.
“Not only did the underlying facts not support the false allegations made against Mr. Elliott, but the process in which they were gathered and adjudicated were fundamentally unfair,” Elliott attorney Frank Salzano said Friday.
Similar arguments were made in the request for a restraining order.
“Although the court need not act until … (Henderson’s ruling) is issued, Elliott and the NFLPA will demonstrate now that they readily satisfy the requirements for preliminary injunctive relief should Elliott’s appeal be denied,” the filing said.
McCarthy said the league was “very confident” in its investigation.
“It’s an uncontested Hail Mary is what this approach is,” McCarthy said. “Once again, the commissioner relied on a variety of evidence and not one single statement from a single witness.”
Elliott’s case differs from the four-game suspension for New England quarterback Tom Brady in the Deflategate case in that Brady’s legal team waited until after Goodell denied the appeal to sue in federal court.
The suspension was overturned, but the NFL won on appeal. Brady served the suspension to start the 2016 season, a year later than the discipline was issued.
Michael McCann, legal analyst for Sports Illustrated, said Elliott’s team likely filed a lawsuit before a ruling from Henderson to try to ensure that the case is heard in Texas.
The NFL would prefer to move the case to the same federal district in New York that ruled Goodell had acted within his powers when he suspended Brady.
“It’s probably a smart move in that the players association is trying to identify a better forum than what the NFL would prefer,” said McCann, a sports law professor at the University of New Hampshire. “Even though Texas isn’t necessarily a great forum for labor, it’s better than going to the court where the Brady decision is binding precedent.”
The NFL’s personal conduct policy was amended three years ago to stiffen penalties in domestic cases. Friel was hired as a result of the changes, which came after the NFL was sharply criticized for its handling of a case involving former Baltimore running back Ray Rice.
The six-game ban Elliott received is the standard for what the NFL views as a first offense in a domestic case, with the possibility of shorter or longer suspensions depending on aggravating or mitigating factors. The league said there were no such factors in Elliott’s case.
Henderson has heard dozens of appeals, including New Orleans running back Adrian Peterson’s in a child abuse case out of Texas when Peterson was with Minnesota. Henderson denied Peterson’s appeal of a suspension, but a federal judge overturned Henderson’s ruling.
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