By Brien O’Donal
Follow me on Twitter @ODonalsVanguard
Thursday afternoon was abuzz with word that the NFL had won their appeal in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and Ezekiel Elliot would begin serving his suspension immediately. The court ruled that Elliot’s legal team had filed for their temporary restraining order too early. At the time, the NFL had not handed down its’ ruling on his appeal making its’ way through the disciplinary system. He now has the option to file for the restraining order again in New York on the same grounds as his original request. It has a good chance of being granted because the merits of his case have not changed and he can be on the field for their next game in week 7.
This is the second time in recent memory when the NFL has given its audience a disciplinary action that found its’ way into federal courts. The Deflategate saga was concluded by Tom Brady serving a four game suspension to start the 2016 season. The NFL was sly in using language that Brady was suspended because of his lack of cooperation in their investigation into the air pressure in the footballs used during the 2014 playoffs. Normally, issues with the footballs would be handled with a fine for illegal equipment but it was seen as the Patriots (particularly Brady) conspiring to cheat the integrity of the game. The NFL went full bore with a 22 million dollar investigation that in the end was a PR nightmare.
A lot of people saw the heavy handedness of the NFL as unnecessary and vindictive. Brady used every legal option at his disposal because they felt his suspension was based on speculation. During his appeal, his legal team was not able to question certain parties about the conclusions drawn from their final report. That inability to question them during the appeal is important to the Ezekiel Elliot case. In Tom Brady’s case there was a lot of ambiguity in the findings against him and it was important that in a fair hearing his team could question those who made those findings.
In Elliot’s case, allegations of domestic violence were lodged against him but the police who investigated them declined to charge him with a crime and questioned the credibility of the woman who made the allegations. The NFL, because it can circumvent the justice system; decided to launch it’s own investigation. Once again, the credibility of the woman lodging the claim was determined to be questionable. The NFL decided to suspend Elliot anyways because it could be proven that he was with the woman around the time she stated the abuse took place. Just like in the Deflategate scenario, Elliot’s team was denied the ability to question those involved in the investigation about the nature of their conclusions. He was also denied the ability to question Roger Goodell who was the person who denied their request to question those involved in the investigation. Like Brady, Elliot was now forced to seek relief through the real justice system.
Since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, the NFL’s disciplinary process has been handled through the NFL offices and specifically the commissioner. While at first it didn’t seem too problematic, the fallout from the Ray Rice scandal forced a dramatic shift in policy (he was suspended leniently for what later turned out to be a far worse domestic violence incident which forced the league to try and save face as best as it could). That policy shift had nothing to do with Deflategate but it has everything to do with Ezekiel Elliot. The NFL handed down his suspension despite conflicting evidence and a lack of witness credibility simply due to the phrase “domestic violence.”
But a lot of people see a bigger issue, an unfair process that has the ability to affect a player’s career in a big way. Cases like this are big news beyond the NFL and people outside looking in have to wonder if the NFL is running its’ own kangaroo court; punishing players not based on evidence but simply allegations. The conclusion that Elliot’s accuser was not credible by the police and then again by the league’s own investigator should have ended it there. But a suspension was handed down anyways.
Because Elliot’s lawyers were not able to question the people involved in the investigation it appears that it was simply a witch hunt. In a twisted world, the NFL has opened the door for anyone to lodge an accusation against an NFL player and that player would be suspended. If the NFL is going to go down that road there could be long term ramifications. NFL players do not want to live their lives with a barrier between them and the fans for fear of being suspended based on an accusation. I’m not saying that would happen, but the U.S. Justice System has checks and balances designed to give a fair chance to challenge evidence for a reason. In two high profile cases, the NFL; which has set up its’ own hearing process, has denied the ability to challenge the evidence. The appearance is now out there that the process is fundamentally unfair and needs an immediate overhaul.
This isn’t about what did or didn’t happen with deflated footballs or a domestic violence incident. It’s about NFL players who face significant consequences through suspension being judged through a system that denies them the rights that would be afforded to them in the traditional justice system. It reminds me of the military justice system, which has an option for non-judicial punishment. There needs not be a trial for punishment of a small offense to occur. Soldiers can lose rank and pay based on the conclusion of their commanding officer. But should NFL players be punished in a manner that is used to keep order and discipline in our military?
There have been grumblings lately that this issue might cause some players to push for a work stoppage until the system is changed. While I think that is unlikely to happen, the next collective bargaining negotiations will probably be even more fraught with strife then they were in 2011 when there was a work stoppage leading right up to training camp. No games were missed that year; but if the league pushes back on this issue there very well may be a strike. As a fan I would hate to see that. As a person who believes in fairness in disciplinary proceedings, I want to see the process changed.
This may not be that last time the NFL faces a scenario like the Ezekiel Elliot case or Deflategate. If it does happen again, how will the league handle it? How will fans react? The more the system looks unfair the less people have faith in it and that could once again be a PR nightmare for the NFL. With all the other things that make people question why they watch, this doesn’t have to be one of them.