Amid all the Trump tweets, owner threats, and protests during the national anthem, it’s understandable that the biggest story headed into this NFL season — the ongoing legal battle over the domestic violence suspension of Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott — has largely been an afterthought over the past few weeks.
But on Thursday afternoon, that story became front-page news again when the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals announced that it was vacating a Texas district court’s preliminary injunction, and ordering the case to be dismissed.
In other words, Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension for domestic violence has been reinstated. For now.
The Fifth Circuit made this decision primarily because it believed that the district court in Texas “lacked subject matter jurisdiction when it issued the preliminary injunction.”
That’s because the NFL Players Association, the sport’s union, filed its request for an injunction in the Texas district court before the NFL-appointed arbitrator had announced his final decision on the suspension.
“The NFLPA’s lawsuit on Elliott’s behalf was premature,” the Fifth Circuit ruling reads. “The procedures provided for in the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFLPA were not exhausted. The parties contracted to have an arbitrator make a final decision. That decision had not yet been issued.”
Elliott has played every game this season so far, but the NFL announced on Thursday that Elliott’s six-game suspension will begin next week, since this week is a bye week for the Cowboys. The NFL says that Elliott will be eligible to return to the Cowboys on Friday, November 24, immediately following the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day game on November 23. But Elliott’s lawyers and the NFL Player’s Association are still exploring their legal options and trying to keep Elliott on the field.
It’s expected that Elliott’s lawyers will immediately file a request for a temporary restraining order and injunction in the Southern District of New York, where the NFL has already filed a suit against Elliott seeking to claim jurisdiction.
While the NFL feels like that is a more favorable venue for them, the outcome is far from a foregone conclusion.
The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) signed by the NFL and NFLPA gives the NFL, and commissioner Roger Goodell in particular, a vast amount of power and leeway when it comes to punishments. But even so, U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant III in Texas ruled last month that the NFL had done such a poor job with the Elliott investigation that “fundamental unfairness infected this case from the beginning, eventually killing any possibility that justice would be served.”
It’s possible that Elliott will be granted an injunction again, and could be back on the field in 10 days for the Cowboys next game. It’s also possible that the suspension is upheld, and he is out until Week 13. Either way, legal battles will likely continue throughout the season as both parties seek to stand their ground — Elliott does not want to in any way admit fault by serving the suspension, and the NFL does not want to lose any of its control over player discipline.
Remember, this is no longer a case about whether or not Elliott engaged in physical violence against his ex-girlfriend on multiple occasions during the week of July 16, 2016. (A claim the NFL said it found “substantial and persuasive evidence” to support.) Rather, this is a battle over power and process — exactly how much power the league has, and whether or not it stuck to the process outlined in the CBA when disciplining Elliott.
The one dissenting judge in the Fifth Circuit, James E Graves, Jr., certainly did not feel that the NFL followed its own instructions.
“This is a case about undisclosed information, uninformed decisions, and an arguably unfair process in determining whether Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott should be punished for allegation of domestic violence made by an accuser who was found not credible by the NFL’s lead investigator, who was then excused from meetings with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell,” Graves wrote.
The NFL has reason to celebrate on Thursday, but due primarily to its own missteps, there is still a long road ahead.
UPDATE (10/18/17): Yeah, that didn’t last for long. On Tuesday October 17, U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty granted Elliott another temporary restraining order to block the NFL’s suspension, which allows Elliott to play this Sunday’s game. Crotty granted the TRO because the presiding judge, District Judge Katherine Polk Failla, is on vacation, and Crotty delayed the decision until Failla returns to work, which will be no later than October 30.
There is still a long road ahead for both parties, and it is nearly impossible to predict where the pendulum will swing next. But for now, Elliott will remain on the field.