Law & the Courts

The Corner

A Federal Court Was Right To Let Ezekiel Elliott Play

When is the NFL like a college campus? When it’s creating and running its own embarrassing and absurd system of kangaroo courts.

Unless you hate America (or were dodging a hurricane), you were watching football this weekend. And if you were watching football, you were listening to commentary about Dallas Cowboy star running back Ezekiel Elliott. On Friday, federal judge Amos Mazzant granted Elliott’s motion for a preliminary injunction, blocking the NFL from enforcing Elliott’s six-game suspension for alleged domestic violence. The order was the latest black eye for a league that can’t seem to figure out how to run a sane or even decent disciplinary system for its athletes.

The league is under increasing public pressure to deal with athlete misconduct, especially for domestic violence, but that doesn’t mean the NFL can skip basic due process. Honestly, when I read the court’s opinion, I felt like I was reading a tale from the worst of campuses. Consider the following:

-The NFL disregarded law enforcement’s decision not to prosecute Elliott, a decision made because the police were concerned about “conflicting versions of what had taken place over the listed dates.”

-The NFL disregarded the findings of its own investigator that the alleged victim’s “accusations were incredible, inconsistent, and without corroborating evidence to sufficiently support any discipline against Elliott.”

-The NFL denied Elliott’s request to cross-examine his accuser, and actively withheld exculpatory evidence from Elliott and from the player’s union.

This portion of the court’s opinion is particularly devastating:

Here, the NFLPA contends that the NFL withheld information regarding Roberts’s assessment of Thompson’s credibility and the credibility of the evidence from the NFLPA, Elliott, and possibly Commissioner Goodell. According to the facts before the Court, Roberts, a primary investigator of Elliott’s case, developed opinions about the credibility of witnesses she interviewed, including Thompson, as well as whether to issue punishment in the case. This information was not put into the Elliott Report and may not have been communicated to Commissioner Goodell. Because this information was not in the Elliott Report or any other documentary evidence the NFL provided to the NFLPA, neither the NFLPA nor Elliott knew about Roberts’s opinions. Thus, the Court finds, the NFL further sought to ensure that the NFLPA and Elliott would never find out about Roberts’s opinions by arguing that her testimony would be cumulative of Friel’s and unnecessary in the arbitration. While the last effort failed, the NFL’s initial efforts to stop the NFLPA and Elliott from learning of the relevant evidence of Roberts’s opinions were successful. The NFLPA and Elliott were unable to present this relevant evidence and instead unexpectedly learned this at the end of the second day of arbitration.

It doesn’t take lawyer to understand that the NFL’s conduct was fundamentally unfair. While the league may ultimately win its appeal of the trial court’s injunction (courts typically give wide latitude to arbitrators, even when proceedings are flawed), how many times will important American institutions have to learn that there’s no substitute for due process? It’s unacceptable to create judicial systems that seem designed to manufacture particular results rather than reach the truth.

Moreover, I’m automatically suspicious of any process that so readily disregards law enforcement findings. The NFL is certainly entitled to conduct its own investigations and create its own disciplinary system, but private entities tend to lack the investigative and judicial experience of law enforcement professionals. Again and again, colleges and corporations think they can do justice better than the courts. Again and again, however, they cut corners, embarrass themselves, and — most importantly — damage real people’s lives.

I don’t know if Elliott assaulted his girlfriend. I don’t know if he really, truly deserves to play next Sunday. But he does deserve due process, and the NFL certainly deserves its judicial beatings – at least until its justice system improves.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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