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Domestic violence expert shares details of NFL's Ezekiel Elliott investigation

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SB Nation spoke to Tonya Lovelace, one of the independent advisors the NFL appointed to the investigation.

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The NFL’s investigation into domestic violence allegations against Ezekiel Elliott took more than a year to complete. During the investigation, four independent advisors were consulted to sift through the evidence and reports. All the advisors participated in a meeting with Elliott, and they shared their views on the matter with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell before he handed Elliott a six-game suspension.

Tonya Lovelace, the CEO of the Women of Color Network and an intimate partner violence expert and advocate, was one of them.

The Women of Color Network spun off from the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence in 2014, and it’s a non-profit organization that works to eliminate violence against all women. Lovelace has over 22 years of experience in intimate partner violence advocacy.

Her experience with the Women of Color Network put Lovelace on the NFL’s radar. She first connected with the NFL back in 2014, after Ray Rice became an example of the league’s need to address the way it handles domestic violence. Lovelace told SB Nation that initial connection was the reason she was chosen as an advisor on Elliott’s case.

“They brought a group of us in October 2014 together to begin and just sort of kick off a set of collective recommendations to the NFL,” Lovelace said. “They selected a core group of advisors, and so I’ve had connections with those advisors as well as I’ve somewhat remained in contact with other representatives of the NFL.

“And I believe, then, when this case came about that they thought of me as an option to be involved with this investigation.”

How the process worked

The independent advisors appointed by the NFL entered the picture after league investigators compiled all of the evidence for their review. That included information and context that wasn’t available to the City Attorney’s Office in Columbus, Ohio, when it decided against charging Elliott with a crime.

The advisors — Lovelace, former Attorney General of New Jersey Peter Harvey, former player and Hall of Famer Kenneth Houston, and former United States Attorney and Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Jo White — had the luxury of time to review the information and piece it all together.

“I think that by the time they pulled us in, which was just a couple of months ago, they had already spent a long time pulling together all pieces,” Lovelace said. “And so we reviewed over 100 exhibits provided by the NFL. We reviewed just hundreds — a couple hundred pages of statements and information, and we reviewed extensively submissions offered by Mr. Elliott’s representatives as well as the information that the NFL gathered.”

The NFL pulled together hundreds of pages of evidence for the advisors, including forensic analysis used to confirm locations, times, and other information.

“So what they did was, they were able to pull metadata from texts, from the cell phone of each individual,” Lovelace explained. “They were able to really investigate and look at the relationship prior to those more severe incidents so that we could look at the bigger picture. And as a domestic violence expert, it’s important for me to see the full picture.”

The advisors were also present for a hearing with Elliott and his representatives and listened to information they presented. They also had the opportunity to ask Elliott questions, and his responses helped shape their views on the case.

How the advisors pieced together the events

Lovelace said she tried to look at each piece of evidence as its own part of the story and then assess all of the evidence as a whole.

“You look at that and you look at all of the other pieces as well where you see all of the connections that really are clearly woven, that really clearly tell a story,” Lovelace said. “Where she is — where she’s taken pictures, where she’s sent those through text messages, where she’s called the police and her statements, and where he’s also admitted to being in her presence at the time.

“And that full thread of information, along with the doctors, the medical advice that says, yes, these bruises are consistent with having been fresh and happening within that timeframe.”

One of the challenges with this investigation was navigating some inconsistent and inaccurate information provided by Elliott’s accuser.

Lisa Friel, the league’s lead investigator, said she could not endorse the woman as credible because of misleading testimony during the NFL investigation, according to documents obtained by the Star-Telegram.

Elliott’s accuser was dishonest about the events of the night of July 22, 2016, when she called police and said Elliott had yanked her out of her car by the wrist. She discussed with a friend the possibility of selling sex videos of her and Elliott for a profit or blackmailing him with them, according to documents obtained by Yahoo Sports. Elliott’s appeal will address these concerns about his accuser’s credibility.

But the independent advisors weren’t operating off just Elliott’s accuser’s statements and claims. They had enough evidence to paint a more complete picture of the situation. They concluded she was telling the truth about other violent altercations from earlier that week.

Lovelace said it’s important to remember that there are no good victims or bad victims in situations of intimate partner violence.

“That there would be one type of victim and one set of behaviors that a victim would have that would really then entitle her to be able to claim victimhood and that it would absolve him of any behavior he may have had, I think is problematic,” Lovelace said. “I think what I’m saying is we have to look at (Elliott’s accuser) as a whole person, you know?

“She’s a whole person. She is a real person experiencing violence and trying to figure out what to do.”

How the outcome was reached

Once the advisors had time to form their perspectives — based on the NFL’s 160-page report of the investigation and all of the evidence associated with it — each met with Goodell individually.

“And we were not involved in his final decision,” Lovelace said. “We were not directed on any of these pieces. We showed up and it was like a clean slate. Here’s your information. You come to your own conclusions, and then we were able to give our own conclusions on this process.”

Lovelace believes Goodell made the right call with Elliott’s discipline.

“I really commend the NFL for making the decision to suspend him for six games, primarily because I hope he’ll use that time to seek the clinical support that they’ve asked him to do,” Lovelace said. “And as a young African-American man, I do have some interest in his well-being and a particular investment in his wellness and his well-being.

“I’m hoping that in general he will seek the ongoing support and services and treatment — particularly batterer intervention, which has a specific way of talking and a specific way of looking at the dynamics of power and control in relationships.”

Lovelace wishes the same for Elliott’s accuser.

“These are both people at the end of the day,” Lovelace said. “And I just really want to see them both get the support that’s needed.”