The NFL spin machine is fast at work doing its best to make it look like the investigation into the domestic violence allegations against Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott has been long and arduous and absolutely had to take more than a year. Even though the criminal investigation ended in September with no charges, and even though Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was seen threatening the NFL’s top investigator, telling her, “Your bread and butter is going to get both of us thrown out on the street,” the NFL would have you think it’s just a coincidence that the usual NFL water carriers are signaling that the investigation is expected to end soon during the lowest points in the sports-media cycle.
To hear the NFL’s chosen news deliverers tell it, the holdup has been waiting on phone records for Elliott that were received weeks ago. But that glosses over whatever else the NFL has been doing for the past year. One thing they spent several months doing was trying to get as much as they could out of prosecutors in the Columbus area, who conducted the lengthiest investigation involving Elliott. At one point, when a prosecutor did not want to discuss his multiple conversations with a possible domestic-violence victim, the NFL’s director of investigations tried to put more pressure on him, even mentioning a “Memorandum of Understanding” between the NFL and the National District Attorneys Association “to aid the League with respect to our investigative efforts regarding allegations of violations of the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy.”
Prosecutors have told Deadspin they declined the December request to discuss the contents of their multiple conversations with Tiffany Thompson beyond what was already in the public record. But the entire exchange highlights one of the thornier parts of the NFL’s quest to “get it right” on domestic violence. Yes, that sounds good in theory. For now, though, it clearly now entails the NFL—a private employer—asking agents of the state to fork over nonpublic information about alleged victims whose spouses or partners work for them.
Deadspin reached out to the three agencies that were known to have investigated allegations of possible assault involving Elliott and Thompson: Columbus police, the Columbus city attorney, and Aventura police. Aventura police produced a thin selection of emails. From their end, the NFL “investigation” was just a private investigator emailing a random officer whose name he pulled off the internet on Sept. 28, 2016 asking for “as much information as possible.” The investigator, Ed Du Bois, wrote that “The NFL is very aggressive in it’s investigation of this conduct so please respond as soon a possible.”
Aventura police treated it as a public-records request. According to their emails, Du Bois picked up a stack of public records from their office on Sept. 30. That’s where the email conversation ends.
Columbus police told us they didn’t have any records that matched our request, but the Columbus City Attorney’s Office did. The relevant emails start on Aug. 8, 2016, with the NFL’s director of investigations, Kia Roberts, thanking city attorney Richard Pfeiffer for getting back to her and introducing herself. He wrote back explaining pretty much what the public knew—a woman reported that Elliott had assaulted her, and they were investigating. He would let her know when the investigation was done. Roberts asked for an update on Aug. 31, and he wrote back that they are still investigating.
On Sept. 6, the same day the case was closed and documents were released to the public, an email was sent giving them to Roberts. The next day, she wrote back to offer a thank you. “I will contact you,” she wrote, “if I have any further questions or problems.”
There are no more emails until a month later, on Oct. 7. On that date, Roberts wrote that the NFL had “fully reviewed the materials that you made available” and that she had some follow-up questions. It’s pretty simple stuff: Were there other audio statements taken from witnesses? (No.) Who conducted the recorded intake interviews? (A part-time employee of that unit.) Had another call to police that Thompson had mentioned to the NFL been recorded? (Copies of calls to police are handled by the police, not his office.)
No more emails turn up until the next month, on Nov. 3. At this point, Roberts said she has gone to Columbus and met with prosecutors in person. This email is to principal assistant city attorney Robert Tobias asking for a calendar he had mentioned during their conversation:
Tobias politely declines.
Roberts returned in December. She was, as in all her emails, very polite and thankful for their help. But she still wanted more information, and mentioned the “memorandum of understanding” as a reason they should be cooperating with her. She sent this to the city attorney on Dec. 9.
The memorandum that Roberts mentioned attaching was not attached to the email. Deadspin asked the city attorney’s office to check for the attachment and received this from Tobias:
In regard to the “Memorandum of Understanding” you reference, Ms. Roberts never attached it to her email. As you may recall, Ms. Roberts was asking if I would be willing to share the contents of my conversations with Ms. Thompson. I was solely focused on that request and never communicated to Ms. Roberts that she forgot to attach the Memorandum. We never received any Memorandum of Understanding attachment and I never pointed out the oversight or asked her to email it to me.
Did he share the details of Thompson’s interview? Tobias said, “No, I did not.”
Deadspin reached out today to the National District Attorneys Association for a copy of the memorandum. An automatic email reply said their media spokesperson was out of the office this week and suggested calling their main office. We did, but nobody answered and we were sent to voicemail. We forwarded our email request to their acting executive director but have not heard back. This post will be updated if they respond.
As for the emails with Columbus prosecutors, there are just two more. Later that day, Roberts asked for help contacting the responding officers:
Tobias responded with the email addresses for the officers and told her, “You’ll need to reach out to the Columbus Police Department directly to acquire their phone numbers.” And that was the end of it. The last email is now more than six months old. They show an NFL investigator repeatedly asking questions that involve comparing information given by Thompson to that she had given to different people. But somehow the NFL still has needed another six months to, according to NFL reporters, get Elliott’s phone records.
The entire NFL process, no matter how fancy they try to make it sound, is deeply conflicted. They’re an employer whose main job is to keep teams on the field while the fans are happy and the cash is rolling in. The problem for decades was that there was evidence of the NFL and other sports leagues using their power and influence to downplay accusations or even make investigations involving their players magically disappear. Victims who call police want help and fair investigations, not cops asking for autographs.
But those victims didn’t ask for the NFL to do its own investigations; they wanted it to not obstruct legitimate ones. Just like it always has, the newly woke NFL seems to expect special treatment; all that’s changed is the favors they want. Before, they wanted investigations to go away. Now, they want every last detail of those investigations fed to them so they can do whatever public-relations spin they have to do. The NFL now thinks every prosecutor in America needs to cooperate with them beyond what’s in the public record on every single investigation of, not just domestic violence, but the entire personal conduct policy, which is so broad it covers just about anything a person does.
The NFL and Jerry Jones don’t care if Elliott really did beat up Thompson, or if he didn’t, or if maybe it’s a complicated situation, or if maybe it isn’t. They care, as they have always cared, about getting the right PR spin on it so that nobody will feel bad about forking over thousands of dollars to visit Cowboys stadium and watch Elliott run. While they’re at it, they’d like to use concerns about domestic-violence victims to gain more power to enforce a personal-conduct policy that is so arbitrary it doles out longer suspension for marijuana than for beating your partner—while, apparently, working with America’s district attorneys. This is what “getting it right” looks like with the NFL—an arbitrary power grab that helps nobody except the likes of Jones, the billionaire who just wants to keep on making more billions.