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The NFL believed a woman

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On Friday, the NFL announced that Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott would be suspended six games for violating the league’s Personal Conduct Policy, more than a year after Elliott’s ex-girlfriend Tiffany Thompson accused him of domestic violence.

In a letter addressed to Elliott, B. Todd Jones, the chief disciplinary officer of the National Football League, wrote that “there is substantial and persuasive evidence supporting a finding that you engaged in physical violence against Ms. Thompson on multiple occasions during the week of July 16, 2016.”

Elliott’s suspension was expected, but there is still a lot to digest from this decision. The NFL’s investigation into these allegations was extended, perplexing, and at times controversial. This six-game suspension continues league’s trend of inconsistent punishment for domestic violence offenses; while six games is supposed to be the minimum suspension for first-time domestic violence offenders, most offenders have gotten far shorter suspensions since the policy was enacted in the wake of the Ray Rice fall-out in 2014. The NFL certainly needs to answer to that. And, in the wake of the league’s detailed findings, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ incessant proclamations of Elliott’s innocence over the past year are disturbing at best.

“I have reviewed everything, and there is absolutely nothing — not one thing — that had anything to do with domestic violence,” Jones said just last month.

But, reading through the NFL’s letter to Elliott, what stands out the most is the fact that the NFL believed a woman.

Now, that doesn’t mean the NFL simply took Thompson at her word and called it a day. That means the NFL took Thompson seriously enough to investigate the incident thoroughly, look at the evidence provided, and carefully consider the consequences. That shouldn’t feel groundbreaking, and yet, because of the league’s history and the manner in which our society treats domestic violence victims, it does.

On April 28, 2016, the Cowboys drafted Elliott fourth overall in the NFL draft. On July 22, Thompson posted photos of her bruises on Instagram, along with a caption describing the abuse she had suffered.

“Just for every [woman] out there getting abused it’s time to put a stop to it. This has been happening to me for months and it finally got out of control to where I was picked up and thrown across the room by my arms. Thrown into walls. Being choked to where I have to gasp for breath. Bruised everywhere, mentally and physically abused. It’s not okay,” Thompson wrote. “So I want each and [every one] of you girls to step away now from domestic violence. You’re worth so much more. I got told it was called “tough love.” I’m sorry if you love someone you don’t touch your loved ones.”

Shortly after the Instagram photos were posted, Columbus police released two police reports and a 911 call about an incident between Elliott and Thompson. Elliott’s father quickly came to his defense, conflicting witness reports — including one that claimed Thompson asked her to lie about what she witnessed — surfaced, and in September, the Columbus City Attorney’s office decided not to pursue criminal prosecution.

Elliott went on to have a Pro Bowl season as a rookie, but while he was racking up touchdowns on the field, the NFL’s investigation into the alleged domestic violence incident continued to drag on off of the field. As the months went by, a case that looked like it might be nothing, began to seem like it was certainly something.

On Friday, the NFL detailed how extensive its investigation was.

With respect to the incidents during the week of July 16, 2016, League investigators interviewed more than a dozen witnesses, including Ms. Thompson, and examined all available evidence, including photographic and digital evidence, thousands of text messages and other records of electronic communications. In addition, two medical experts were consulted regarding identification, causation, and aging of certain injuries to Ms. Thompson as depicted in the relevant photos and provided written reports that were shared with your representatives.

The NFL found evidence that Elliott physically abused Thompson three times in five days. According to the league, in the early morning hours of July 17, 2016, Elliott used force on Thompson at an apartment in Ohio that resulted in injuries to Thompson’s arms, neck, and shoulders. Thompson took photos of those injuries and sent them to her aunt with a text message saying, “Absuive” [sic]. The Columbus Police Department took photos displaying those same injuries on July 22, and the Thompson family also provided the Columbus City Attorney’s office with photographs of the injuries on July 22. Medical experts determined those injuries were consistent with Thompson’s description of the incident.

The next incident occurred on July 19, 2016, at the same apartment building. The NFL told Elliott that “there was an altercation… in which you used physical force that caused injuries to Ms. Thompson’s face, arms, wrist, and hands.” Then again, during the early morning hours of July 21, the NFL told Elliott “you used physical force that caused injuries to Ms. Thompson’s face, neck, arms, knee, and hips.”

The NFL says that it carefully weighed Elliott’s concerns about “witness credibility and alternative causation theories,” and states that Goodell’s decision was based on the evidence, independent advisers, and the views of the Columbus city prosecutor, who told NFL investigators, “we generally believed her for all of the incidents.” (Presumably, due to the higher burden of proof in criminal court and the conflicting witness statements, the prosecutor decided not to move forward with the charges.)

The league noted the conflicting testimonies from witnesses, but also said that “there is no dispute that you and Ms. Thompson were together in the same location on the dates identified, and no evidence to suggest that anyone else could have caused these injures.” (Elliott and his team tried to explain the injuries away as a result of a fight with another girl at a bar, or a fall down the stairs.)

Time and time again, the NFL has made it nearly impossible to believe that it takes allegations of domestic violence seriously. This year, multiple players who have been accused of violence against women were drafted. Last year, the NFL only suspended New York Giants kicker Josh Brown for one game despite the fact that Brown admitted to his team that he was abusive to his wife. In that case, Brown’s ex-wife didn’t cooperate with the league because she didn’t trust it, which is completely understandable given how the league acted during investigations into Greg Hardy and Rice.

But the Elliott case is a sign that maybe, just maybe, the league is learning from its past mistakes.

Of course, Elliott certainly didn’t help himself during any of this. In March, during a party for St. Patrick’s Day, Elliott was caught on video pulling down a woman’s shirt and exposing her breast to a crowd. Last month, he was reportedly involved in a bar fight that left a man hospitalized.

While the NFL didn’t punish Elliott for the St. Patrick’s Day incident, it wasn’t impressed, either.

“Your behavior during this event was inappropriate and disturbing, and reflected a lack of respect for women,” the letter read. “When viewed together with the July incidents, it suggests a pattern of poor judgement and behavior for which effective intervention is necessary for your personal and professional welfare.”

In the hours since the suspension was handed out, the reactions have been predictable. Jerry Jones and Cowboys fans are furious. NFL reporters are focused on the on-the-field impact. Fans are, naturally, worried about their fantasy teams. There are plenty of people who, rightly, are questioning the NFL’s investigative process and concerned about the league’s role in domestic violence punishments, seriously. And the story is far from over. Elliott will appeal, and commissioner Roger Goodell will have the ability to sit as a judge in Elliott’s appeal if he so chooses. If the appeal isn’t successful, Elliott will be back on the field before the playoff picture even comes into focus. Six games is not that long in the grand scheme of things.

Still, it’s better than nothing. A woman talked, and the league listened. That matters.

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