Conflicting reports have emerged in recent weeks regarding the direct participation of Commissioner Roger Goodell in the events preceding the suspension of Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. Although, as Friday’s letter to Elliott makes abundantly clear, Goodell made the decision to suspend Elliott six games, Goodell did not personally attend the most important meeting regarding the investigation.
The NFL, after previously not commenting on the matter, has acknowledged that Goodell was not present for the June 26, 2017 hearing that preceded the issuance of discipline. Deadspin.com reported in late July that Goodell didn’t attend any of the hearings involving Elliott.
“On June 26, 2017, you and your representatives had an opportunity to meet personally with [the four] independent advisors [Peter Harvey, Ken Houston, Tonya Lovelace, and Mary Jo White] to discuss you recollection of the events of the week of July 16, 2016, you relations with [Tiffany] Thompson, the March 2017 [St. Patrick’s Day parade] incident, and other issues you and your representatives believed were pertinent to our review,” the August 11 letter informing Elliott of his suspension explains. “The advisors had an opportunity to engage directly in discussions with you, and to hear your counsel’s assessment of the legal, evidentiary and credibility issues presented in this case.”
With credibility being such a critical aspect of this matter, it’s difficult to make a conclusion about Elliott’s credibility without personally attending the June 26 hearing. While the independent advisors serve as a bit of a buffer, their assessment of Elliott’s overall credibility is no substitute for the credibility assessment made by the person making the decision.
Per a source with knowledge of the investigation, Goodell also did not meet with Tiffany Thompson, whose credibility also is at issue.
That’s a clear deviation from standard legal proceedings, especially where a case turns on the resolution of a dispute in witness testimony and recollection. In most if not all other cases, the person making the decision personally assesses the credibility of the key witnesses.
Indeed, when recalling facts and answering questions on matters that are sharply contested, what a person says is only part of the puzzle. How the person says it — demeanor, body language, tells, etc. — is as important, if not more important.
On a matter of such importance and sensitivity to the league, to the Cowboys, and to Elliott, with one of the NFL’s brightest young stars being branded a domestic abuser under a very low 51-49 standard of proof, how can a reliable decision be made if the person making the decision did not directly assess the credibility of the witnesses?
Here’s the truth: It can’t. While the four independent advisors may individually and collectively be capable of assessing witness credibility, they weren’t the ones making the decision. The person who made the decision needed to be in the room, studying every word, facial expression, and gesture. Without that, the grade on the Commissioner’s decision as to Elliott is incomplete, at best.