There is a familiar kind of horror with these things now. The star athlete accused of something terrible. The long, slow league investigation into the allegations. The lightly punitive punishment. The public outcry. The belittling of the accuser. The dragging through the mud. Once again, we are watching these things happen in real time, and once again, it is a mortifying, if not exactly surprising, development.
On Friday, the NFL announced that Ezekiel Elliott would be suspended for the first six games of the 2017 season. The announcement came more than a year after the league began an inquiry into whether Elliott beat his then-girlfriend, Tiffany Thompson, on several occasions in the summer of 2016, leading up to her filing a report with the Columbus, Ohio, police department on July 22. The NFL Players Association has appealed the league’s ruling; Elliott, who was never charged, denied wrongdoing throughout the investigation.
In the days since the announcement of the suspension, a number of stories have surfaced with leaked details about the incident in question, most of them anonymously sourced and conspicuously favorable to Elliott. “Did Ezekiel Elliott’s accuser succeed with threats to ‘ruin’ his career?” asked a Monday story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that included excerpts of messages that Thompson reportedly sent to Elliott, the sourcing of which was attributed simply to “documents obtained by the Star-Telegram.” Early Wednesday, Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson published an article headlined “Ezekiel Elliott’s accuser admitted to talk of leveraging sex videos of herself and RB for money.” That story, which references “documents obtained by Yahoo Sports” as well as “a source close to Elliott,” quotes a portion of the NFL’s 160-page report that details a discussion Thompson allegedly had with a friend about selling “sex tapes she had of herself and Mr. Elliott.”
Hours after Yahoo published the Robinson piece, the NFL published a statement to Twitter denouncing the recent stories and suggesting that they are part of a deliberate strategy by the Players Association to defend Elliott by turning public opinion against Thompson. “Efforts to shame and blame victims are often what prevent people from coming forward to report violence and/or seek help in the first place,” the statement read.
New NFL statement pic.twitter.com/KJ64RDHVB2— Brian McCarthy (@NFLprguy) August 16, 2017
An hour and a half later, the Players Association issued a public response: a statement alleging that the NFL’s message was “a lie” and “an attempt to create a sideshow to distract from their own failings in dealing with such serious issues.”
The public statement issued on behalf of every NFL owner is a lie. The NFLPA categorically denies the accusations made in this statement. pic.twitter.com/OFOGQY91Ai— NFLPA (@NFLPA) August 16, 2017
This was followed not long after by a second, since-deleted and emoji-laden quote tweet of the NFL’s statement, which asked, “Where are the receipts? We’ll wait.”
Oh did they delete it? I thought they might. Here ya go. pic.twitter.com/bRaL0E3I9U— Britt (@brittalih) August 16, 2017
We do not know whether the NFLPA is indeed behind the leaks. Shaming a victim as a way of distracting from accusations against an alleged attacker is a tactic that has been deployed against accusers of prominent athletes before, and even now, some of this week’s reports suggest that the strategy is having precisely that effect. “None of this means that Elliott didn’t commit domestic violence, but it helps paint the full picture of the relationship,” Mike Florio wrote Tuesday. Here’s a passage from Robinson’s Yahoo Sports story:
The texts and email registration don’t disprove the domestic violence allegations Thompson has made against Elliott, nor do they address the central issue of whether violence occurred. … But with Thompson being cited as the NFL’s only firsthand witness to the events she is alleging, a source close to Elliott said his lawyers and the NFLPA have seized upon the exchange to question aspects of motive and credibility in an appeal filed on Tuesday.
This is how it goes: This isn’t relevant to the actual investigation, but. None of this has anything to do with whether Elliott repeatedly beat his girlfriend, but. His girlfriend’s behavior before and after should have no bearing on what we think about the possibility that she was attacked, but.
Here’s what we do know. First: The Players Association is going out of its way to manipulate the public’s reaction and understanding of the events in 2016. And second: The group seems to have stunningly little respect for the issue whose “serious” nature it accused the league of ignoring.
However you look at it, the Players Association’s tweet trivializes domestic violence. It is possible to believe in Elliott’s innocence and to handle allegations of abuse with the sensitivity and thoughtfulness that they deserve. The tweet alone is a blatant attempt to lean into the ugliest and most pervasive stigma that victims face — that they have invented trauma for personal benefit. The choice of forum, too, is an obvious one: one designed for retweets, for comments, where hate and nastiness can be directed immediately toward Thompson.
Let’s set aside that research overwhelmingly shows that false accusations are remarkably rare; a recent National Sexual Violence Resource Center review found that “the prevalence of false reporting is between 2 percent and 10 percent.” And let’s set aside that, as Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas put it Wednesday, a person can be “both a victim of abuse and want revenge.”
As a bargaining strategy with the NFL, the Players Association’s response is nothing short of shocking, which is no doubt what led the NFLPA to delete the tweet shortly after posting it. There is a time and a place to examine allegations against a player: during the league’s investigation and subsequent appeal process, which is underway. By asking for “receipts” — a term that conjures up images of Kanye West and Taylor Swift, a sense of frivolity heightened by the use of emoji — and by doing this on Twitter, the Players Association made clear how it intends to fight this battle: messily, publicly, cruelly, and in a way that uses those of us on the sideline as pawns.