A district court judge has granted Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott a temporary restraining order (TRO) and a preliminary injunction to block the NFL from suspending him for six games following a league domestic violence investigation. Due to the timing of a separate league arbitration ruling on Tuesday, Elliott was cleared to play in Week 1 as a lawsuit against the NFL proceeded; now, Elliott could play the full season while Judge Amos Mazzant III of the U.S. District Court of Eastern Texas reviews the results of the player’s arbitration to decide whether the petition should move to trial. The NFL can immediately appeal Mazzant’s ruling and try to get an emergency stay of the injunction. If that is granted, Elliott’s season would once again be in jeopardy.
Ezekiel Elliott granted preliminary injunction. Judge acknowledges standard was deferential to NFL, but facts in the case were "egregious": pic.twitter.com/W2brdRgvvC— Michael McCann (@McCannSportsLaw) September 8, 2017
Ezekiel Elliott now likely gets to play this season, but NFL and NFLPA are awaiting further explanation.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 8, 2017
“The question of what happened between Elliott and [Elliott’s accuser Tiffany] Thompson in July 2016 is not before the Court,” Mazzant wrote in the conclusion of his opinion. “Nor is the Court making any credibility findings. As previously stated herein, the Court has a limited role in this case. The question before the Court is merely whether Elliott received a fundamentally fair hearing before the arbitrator. The answer is he did not.”
On August 11, the NFL suspended Elliott for six games after the league completed its investigation into an accusation of domestic violence. Elliott appealed the NFL’s decision. On August 31, the NFLPA took the case to the courts by filing a lawsuit on Elliott’s behalf to vacate the suspension. The next day, the NFLPA preemptively filed a petition for a temporary restraining order to block any suspension that could result from arbitrator Harold Henderson's hearing. The NFLPA argued that the league’s eventual arbitration decision would lack “fundamental fairness,” and Mazzant agreed, saying that Henderson did not allow Elliott’s accuser nor commissioner Roger Goodell to testify at the arbitration hearing.
“Their absence effectively deprived Elliott of any chance to have a fundamentally fair hearing,” Mazzant wrote in his ruling.
On Tuesday, Henderson had upheld Elliott’s six-game suspension. But because of the timing of Henderson’s decision, which didn’t come before the hearing regarding the temporary restraining order, the NFL decided to allow Elliott to play in Week 1, with the suspension set to begin in Week 2 should the league prevail. Now, with Mazzant granting the TRO and preliminary injunction on Friday, the suspension is on hold. Elliott can play at least until the injunction is resolved, and legal experts say that that might not happen for months, meaning his suspension could be pushed off to 2018—if he serves it at all.
Elliott could still miss games this season, however, if Goodell places him on the exempt list, which would put Elliott on the equivalent of paid leave but not qualify as a suspension. After Adrian Peterson was accused of child abuse, rather than being suspended, he was put on the exempt list and eventually to missed 15 games in 2014.
Unlike Peterson, Elliott was never charged with a crime—his suspension is based on the league’s investigation, which Elliott’s lawyers argued was flawed. Elliott’s lawsuit to vacate the suspension alleged “a League-orchestrated conspiracy by senior NFL executives … to hide critical information — which would completely exonerate Elliott.” Mazzant concurred with that argument as well:
Elliott judge (!!!): "had the NFL succeeded on its overall goal, [the Roberts withhold] would still be concealed from Elliott and the NFLPA" pic.twitter.com/arLCRYMvdv— Dan Werly (@WerlySportsLaw) September 8, 2017
This is bigger than one player, and the Elliott case has clearly become a rallying point for the NFLPA’s conflicts with Goodell and the owners. Its post-ruling statement is a declaration of intent: “Commissioner discipline will continue to be a distraction from our game for one reason: because NFL owners have refused to collectively bargain a fair and transparent process that exists in other sports. This ‘imposed’ system remains problematic for players and the game, but as the honest and honorable testimony of a few NFL employees recently revealed, it also demonstrates the continued lack of integrity within their own League office.”
While the NFLPA is working to combat what it views as the league’s role as judge, jury, and executioner in disciplinary matters, the NFL, in a statement issued by league spokesman Brian McCarthy, maintained that Goodell and league executives were fair during the investigation and subsequent disciplinary procedures.
“We strongly believe that the investigation and evidence supported the Commissioner’s decision and that the process was meticulous and fair throughout. We will review the decision in greater detail and discuss next steps with counsel, both in the district court and federal court of appeals.”