After I recently castigated the NFL and its club owners for not having a clear policy on symbolic social messaging by its players, it is only fair that they also be commended for starting to use the league’s relatively new personal conduct policy. There is the prospect of consistency in the standard. That is what many of the NFL’s most loyal fans want.
Ezekiel Elliott received a six-game suspension. That is consistent with the plain reading of the policy. It certainly beats an ad hoc arbitrary decision-making process, or lack thereof.
But Elliott’s appeal of that decision is probably going to expose some of the most challenging aspects of the personal conduct policy. That is because the NFL decided not to tie its conduct policy wagon to the existing judicial system, which just happens to be one of the world’s best at defining crimes and ensuring due process for fairness in investigations, mediations and trials of civil and criminal matters. The NFL commissioner is the judge, but he is not trained to judge matters based on the rule of law.
The NFL is in the business of football, not law. When it decides to essentially create its own judicial system, with self-serving investigations, and then be a judge of those investigations, it is getting outside the lines of its expertise. As several federal courts and the National Football League Players Association have repeatedly made clear to the NFL, it cannot avoid basic principles of due process and fairness in its treatment of NFL players.
That brings us to why somebody is going to lose sleep over the Elliott appeal.
It is easy to find a conduct violation when there is video evidence of a player’s transgressions. That was Ray Rice. But there is no Rice-like video that has surfaced against Elliott.
It is easy to find a violation when there is undisputed or overwhelming testimony. Not so in this appeal. Instead, Elliott and the union that represents him claim there is a text message from the alleged victim that she would get someone to lie against him as part of a diabolical scheme to “ruin his career.”
Instead of one-sided testimony that supports the conclusion the NFL already drew, there may be testimony that dents the credibility of the witness.
Worse yet for the combined prosecutor-judge-jury of the NFL is a city attorney and staff that examined the potential witnesses and decided not to pursue Elliott because of “conflicting and inconsistent” allegations against Elliott. Those prosecutors get paid to make those assessments. The NFL commissioner and staff do not.
Now Commissioner Roger Goodell is in the uncomfortable position of hearing the appeal or having someone he designates take it over. They are going to have to decide if they can better assess the reliability of witnesses than those who do it for a living.
If Elliott is guilty as charged, I hope the truth comes out. But if the witnesses are as unreliable as the city attorney determined, the NFL is faced with trashing its initial decision or trashing the truth to uphold its initial decision.
That is not a dream come true. That is a nightmare in waiting. Somebody is going to lose some sleep trying to avoid it.