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The importance of considering Ezekiel Elliott’s side of the story

The NFL decided they had enough to suspend Ezekiel Elliott for domestic violence, despite he wasn't prosecuted against in Columbus for the alleged incidents.

Domestic violence is illegal, abhorrent, and despicable. Those who commit it should be exposed, shamed, and incarcerated. But those accused of it should not be presumed to be guilty, especially if they were never arrested or charged.

When it comes to NFL internal investigations, the initial outcome also should not be presumed to be fair and accurate. It’s a degree of patience and caution that has become justified by bungled, ham-handed NFL investigations of recent years, from the Saints bounty scandal to the cap penalties imposed on Dallas and Washington to the Ray Rice debacle to #Deflategate. All too often, the NFL (like many other large business organizations) selects a desired outcome in such situations and works backward to justify it.

Whatever anyone thinks of Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s past handling of internal investigations should at a minimum prompt a willingness to keep an open mind, to listen what Elliott has to say, and to be willing to poke holes in the facts, findings, and logic applied by the league.

That attitude likely won’t earn me any friends at 345 Park Avenue (if I have any), but it’s a clear consequence of the manner in which the league has Machiavellied its way through other investigations, at times ignoring common sense and reason to make the square peg of P.R.-driven justice fit in the round hole of reality.

Here’s the first clue that maybe a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted before concluding that Elliott did what they now say he did (apart from, you know, the fact that he wasn’t arrested or charged): One of the four experts who participated in the Commissioner’s advisory panel for the Elliott case is Mary Jo White.

For Saints fans, that name has nearly the same connotation as Ted Wells does for Patriots fans. Five years ago, the NFL hired White to serve as a supposedly independent evaluator of disputed facts and evidence regarding the bounty scandal. At one point, she met with multiple reporters and reviewed what she decided was “overwhelming evidence” of Saintly guilt.

Here’s the piece of “overwhelming evidence” many regarded as a smoking gun, as explained at the time by Peter King: “The NFL Films-recorded quote from defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, as first reported by SI in March, with Hargrove saying to defensive teammate Bobby McCray, ‘Give me my money,’ after Vitt told the team that Favre was out of the game with a leg injury. (Favre did return to the game without missing a play, but that wasn’t apparent when Hargrove made his declaration to McCray.)”

The problem with White’s insistence that Hargrove said “give me my money” is that careful, objective assessment of the video and audio leads to the fair conclusion that it’s inconclusive, at best, that Hargrove said the words. After watching it over and over and over again, I personally became convinced that he didn’t. Making White’s claim even more problematic is that she defended the conclusion that Hargrove said “give me my money” by saying “you can see his lips moving.” The video did not support that interpretation, at all.

The league later retreated from the insistence that Hargrove said “give me my money,” but the zealous, and erroneous, effort by White to put words in Hargrove’s mouth raised real questions about the overall credibility of her work, since it created a fair impression that she was serving not as an independent evaluator of the evidence but as an advocate for the league’s preferred outcome.

While the bounty scandal had more fundamental flaws (including, as former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue explained in his ruling scrapping the player suspensions, an effort to change a widespread NFL cultural dynamic by catching one team and hammering it with discipline), the effort by White to sell the strength of the case by insisting Hargrove said something that he didn’t obviously say became, at least for me, a key moment. Once I realized that Hargrove didn’t say “give me my money,” a little switch flipped in my typically limited brain. That was the moment where I decided that I wouldn’t just assume that whatever the league says in disciplinary matters is truthful and accurate. Those statements and claims from the league may ultimately be truthful and accurate, but I resolved at that point to resist the urge to say, “Well, if Big Shield says it, it must be true” and to look critically and carefully at every nook and cranny of the proof in order to ensure that everything makes sense.

Now White is back on the scene, hired once again by the NFL to provide opinions, insights, and perhaps eventually explanations regarding the strength of the league’s evidence against Elliott. Although there’s no reason to assume that there definitely will be a repeat of her inaccurate claims from 2012 (apart from the fact that she previously made an inaccurate claim in 2012), it’s a reminder that there are always two sides to the story, but that the league strongly prefers that its side be accepted as truthful and accurate, no matter what.

It will be harder to look at both sides of this case than it is in other cases. Elliott is accused of domestic violence; any effort to push back against the claims made against him will, at some point, feel like a failure to properly support the victims of domestic violence. Perhaps that makes it even more important for Elliott to receive a fair shake.

Also, it will be easy while trying to understand Elliott’s position on the situation to assume that the league is right by asking, “Why would the league want to make one of its brightest young stars look like a criminal, especially if he didn’t do it?” But that ship sailed two years ago, when the league tried to make one of the greatest players in the history of the sport look like a liar and a cheater, absent adequate proof that he lied or cheated.

The ultimate lesson from multiple botched investigations is this: The league does what it wants, when it wants, how it wants. It’s one of the spoils of being the dominant and most powerful sport in America. It also makes having a willingness to ask fair questions and, if need be, push back against questionable findings even more important.

Elliott has appeal rights, and legal rights beyond that. He has not yet publicly presented any evidence in his own defense, but that clearly is coming. Before assuming that he’s guilty as charged, it’s important to consider all of the evidence fairly and objectively.