As football fans try to shift their brains back to legalese more than a year after #Deflategate ended, many are having a hard time understanding why the league could suspend Ezekiel Elliott for committing domestic violence if he was never arrested or charged.
The distinction is fairly simple. The league’s in-house justice system operates under the “preponderance of the evidence” standard. That’s a fancy way of saying, “If we believe one side a little bit more than the other, that side wins.”
In contrast, the criminal justice system requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This highest of all legal standards routinely causes prosecutors to not even waste time and money chasing a conviction that would easily be blocked by eloquence far less persuasive than “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Indeed, during a Friday conference call explaining the NFL’s decision, attorney Peter Harvey (a member of the four-person advisory panel who previously served as the New Jersey Attorney General) cited the high standard of proof as a reason for the failure of the prosecutor in Ohio to proceed against Elliott.
It also seems that the NFL had more complete evidence than the authorities, apparently due to a greater degree of cooperation from Tiffany Thompson, the woman who accused Elliott of multiple acts of misconduct. She produced photos that the league determined to have been taken contemporaneously with the alleged incidents, and the league also used medical experts to confirm that the photos contained images consistent with abuse resulting in injuries to her face, arms, neck, knees, hips, and shoulders.
And so the objective evidence allowed the NFL to resolve the dispute between Elliott and Thompson over whether he injured her. The fact that the league had “questions with respect to the completeness of [his] cooperation with the investigation” may have caused the league to view Elliott’s overall story a bit more dimly, even if there was no finding that he separated violated the policy by failing to cooperate.
In the end, the league needed to decide only that Thompson’s version was slightly more persuasive than Elliott’s. And it did.