The NFL’s decision to suspend Ezekiel Elliott for six games appears to have been based less on allegations that Elliott physically assaulted his ex-girlfriend than on what the league perceived as his lack of cooperation with its year-long investigation, according to hearing transcripts made public in the players’ union’s lawsuit against the league.
When Elliott appeared at a June 26 hearing in New York City—roughly six weeks before his suspension was handed down—he was questioned at great length by Lisa Friel, the NFL’s senior vice president for investigations. Much of that questioning drilled down on granular details from July 16 to 22 of last year, when Elliott and his accuser, Tiffany Thompson, spent most of the week together in Columbus, Ohio, when the assault claims the league zeroed in on are alleged to have taken place.
In its letter to Elliott explaining his six-game punishment, the league relied on photos taken by Thompson of bruises to her body, which she also sent to an aunt. They said metadata confirmed when and where they were taken, and they had independent medical experts review them, leading the NFL to say “the photographic and medical forensic evidence corroborates many critical elements of the allegations.”
So these photos came up during the June hearing. During his testimony, Elliott mostly explained the neck bruising as “hickeys” he said he had given Thompson. He also recalled seeing bruises on her elbows, knees, and hips, which contradicted what he had told Kia Roberts, the league’s director of investigations, in September 2016. Under further questioning by Friel, Elliott explained the discrepancy by saying it was so common for Thompson to have bruises it could be easy not to notice they were there.
But the photos also weren’t as definitive as the NFL’s letter to Elliott portrayed. At the same hearing, near the end, during a conversation that corresponded with a closing statement from Elliott’s lawyer, Friel said that the two medical experts who observed the photos stated that the bruises depicted did not appear to be fresh—and that this was also true of the “hickeys” Elliott admitted he had given Thompson during the week in question.
Friel later testified during this week’s appeal hearing that she had told commissioner Roger Goodell that Roberts—the league’s lead investigator on this case—did not believe there was enough evidence for Goodell to pursue discipline for Elliott.
So why did the league come down hard on Elliott? During June’s hearing, Friel articulated eight factors the league viewed as a lack of cooperation on Elliott’s part, starting with the fact that Elliott said he bought two new cell phones last fall, after the new iPhone came out. Elliott said he didn’t know he had to keep the data (including text messages) that had been stored on his old phones. Update (5:11 p.m. ET): The NFL’s personal conduct policy does indeed state that a “failure to cooperate with an investigation or to be truthful in responding to inquiries will be separate grounds for disciplinary action.” But the league’s Aug. 11 letter to Elliott explaining the grounds for his suspension makes no mention of either his lack of cooperation or lack of truthfulness.
Friel went on to list examples of Elliott’s lack of cooperation:
Next, Friel said the league found it misleading that Elliott didn’t characterize Thompson as his girlfriend when Roberts interviewed him last September, when text messages and other evidence that turned up in the league’s investigation indicated otherwise:
Friel then referenced what Elliott had told Roberts about whether Thompson had called the cops on him before July of last year:
Next, Friel outlined a discrepancy over whether Elliott and Thompson had a fight that resulted from Thompson having ignored Elliott:
Friel went on to say the league picked apart additional statements Elliott made that were contradicted by text messages:
From there, Friel referenced threats Elliott claimed Thompson made against him—and suggested Elliott may have been lying because no additional evidence existed to support his claims:
The same goes for another specific claim Elliott said Thompson had directed at him:
Friel acknowledged numerous potential corroborating witnesses refused to cooperate:
And she also expressed doubts about Thompson’s credibility as it pertained to one particular incident:
Several years ago, the NFL pledged to get it right on domestic violence. But this case, in some ways, parallels instead what happened with the league’s investigation of Tom Brady: cooperate with us or we’ll screw you.