No matter what the NFL does, it devolves into a bunch of dudes arguing about whether or not a woman is a liar. It happened with Janay Rice. It happened with Nicole Holder. It happened with Molly Brown. And it’s happening now. The best case for the NFL just packing up and admitting, “We have no clue what to do about domestic violence and we’re probably making it worse” is today. Because not only is the entire Ezekiel Elliott case devolving into a slut-shaming shit show, but it’s a shit show the NFL set itself up for. NFL brass made this happen, and are so stupid they don’t even realize it.
When the NFL came out and said it was suspending Elliott for six games, it said it was doing so because it found “substantial and persuasive evidence” that Elliott abused Tiffany Thompson. One of their advisors opened up a conference call with reporters by saying of Thompson, “She is a victim and a survivor.” They can’t say that just two people know what happened between Thompson and Elliott, because they have told us what they believe happened, putting the weight of the league behind one version of events. Perhaps nobody explained this to Roger Goodell—or maybe someone did and he ignored them—but when you base your legal case on saying, “I believe this person,” that means the defense is going to attack the person. That’s how legal defense works; it’s what defense lawyers are paid to do and a necessary part of a fair process. Anyone who’s binge-watched Law & Order on a sick day knows this.
(As to why these defenses so often swiftly devolve into slut-shaming, the answer is pretty easy—because it works. The minute it stops working, defense lawyers will stop doing it. This is why changing cultural attitudes will, ultimately, take us much further on this issue. But that’s a nuanced point, and nobody comes to the NFL expecting nuance.)
This attack will be ugly because they are always ugly, and even uglier when the case involves two people who were in some sort of relationship. In the back and forth of a relationship both people will often have done horrible things, which in any legal or pseudo-legal process will be stripped of context and humanity and turned into technical questions—important ones—about evidence and credibility. There are many reasons why our attempts to adjudicate domestic violence within the courts have failed, but one is this: Relationships are complicated, good people do bad things and bad people can be victims, and nuance doesn’t sit well with juries or even the general public. You can expect, going forward, every instance of NFL justice to devolve into something like this conversation relayed in a recent Sharon Grigsby column:
I remarked to a male acquaintance, “Elliott got hit with a six-game suspension. Good for the NFL for stepping up.”
His rapid-fire response: “She lied. The police report said so. That’s why they didn’t bring charges.”
I politely — probably too deferentially in my attempt to get him to listen to reason — acknowledged that, yes, in regard to one incident, Tiffany Thompson did ask a friend to lie about an alleged assault. “But now let’s look at all the other evidence —”
Before I could catch my breath, he continued: “I suppose you think the woman in the Duke lacrosse case was telling the truth too,” referring to the infamous 2006 case in which a college student hired to strip at a team party falsely alleged she was gang-raped.
Further attempts to provide my point of view failed. Finally, I just walked away, truly horrified that this generally bright and logical man was angry about far more than the prospect of Elliott’s absence hurting the Cowboys’ Super Bowl chances.
So this—the NFL’s attempt to manage a public-relations problem by getting tough on accused abusers through the mechanism of a vague and arbitrary process blowing up—was the next step. It always was the next step. The NFL decided to play dumb, though and, because this is the NFL, managed to turn an attempt to get tough on domestic violence into the use of battered women into a tool to use in their upcoming labor negotiations:
I’ve read the same reports as you have, and I don’t see anyone saying they got leaked documents from the NFLPA. (The NFLPA, by the way, soon released a response, saying the NFL was lying.) Whoever leaked this material, you can easily read it, believe Thompson, and still question the process that led to the NFL suspending Elliott for six games. But this is the NFL, so of course a case of domestic violence is really just a chance to advance its own agenda of crushing what little power the players’ union has left and making the NFL’s Park Avenue offices appear to be a benevolent judiciary lording over the players. Was this ever about making it easier and safer for battered women to get out of bad relationships? No. Was it ever about reforming player behavior? Oh God no.
As for the second half of the statement, no, I don’t want the NFL dishing out what it thinks are the reasons women don’t report abuse. There are many reasons victims don’t report abuse. They might fear their partners losing income their family needs due to the conviction. They might fear retaliation from the abuser. They might fear that an honest accounting of an attack and of what they did in the aftermath might make them appear less than perfect under scrutiny, or fear being left to defend themselves with few resources. Somehow, the NFL left what would be inconvenient for the league’s vision of itself out of its statement, and managed to focus on the elements of the process that work to defend labor against management. The NFL cherry-picks the elements of domestic violence they want to see, and ignores the other parts.
What McCarthy left out of his statement is that there is still a chance that Elliott will receive zero counseling. That isn’t an accident; no part of this policy, down to the part where only “credible” evidence is needed to find a player in violation of it, is about making men better men. It’s about making sure Goodell looks strong. I’ve referred to the work of University of Maryland professor Leigh Goodmark before, and I’m going to again because I cannot put it better than she did on why “get tough” policies don’t work:
Demonizing men who batter prompts simplistic, rhetorically appealing, but hollow “jail them all” laws and policies. Such responses are unrealistic, particularly given how little jail time men who are convicted of battering actually serve, and are unlikely to prompt behavioral change. They do, however, allow policymakers to ignore the complexity of why men batter and avoid the question of how to stop abusive behavior.
The NFL wants nothing more than to not talk about what it can do to change player behavior because, in some ways, it can’t. Do you look at Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and think, “That is a man who respects women?” What would you take away from learning that Jones was your boss and signed your paychecks? That you needed to respect women more? I doubt it.
Goodell—at his best—is a clown put in place to distract from the actual evils of the owners. And due to his actions, you and I and everyone else in sports are going to spend the following months debating whether or not Thompson was a victim, and whether or not she’s credible, and whether this is the one that the NFL “got right” or a repeat of the Duke lacrosse scandal, rather than whether two people in a complex and violent situation—one powerless and vulnerable—are getting the support they need. How is any of this helping battered women, again? How is it helping Tiffany Thompson?