Why Is the Ezekiel Elliott Investigation Taking So Long?
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?
The MMQB staff writer Tim Rohan shares how the NFL has changed the way it investigates domestic violence cases.
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.
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…