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Were the courtroom challenges worth it for Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys and the NFLPA?

By Mark Maske

November 10, 2017 at 8:30 AM

Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension went into effect after Thursday’s court ruling, according to the NFL. (Eric Risberg/AP)

Opening Thought

The NFL Players Association fought what it felt was the good fight in the Ezekiel Elliott case, challenging the NFL’s six-game suspension of the second-year running back for the Dallas Cowboys in federal courts because it believed that Elliott had been wronged and that the league’s system of justice under Commissioner Roger Goodell is deeply flawed.

Elliott spoke of clearing his name.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had his player’s back, saying that Elliott had not been treated fairly by the league. And oh, by the way, the Cowboys also need Elliott in their lineup desperately, Jones acknowledged as well.

Related: [NFL says Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension is in effect after appeals court denies him an injunction]

But the result that was probably inevitable all along has become reality. The NFLPA, Elliott and the Cowboys have lost in the legal tussle over a preliminary injunction to keep Elliott’s suspension on hold while the NFLPA’s underlying legal challenge of his suspension plays out in court.

Elliott has begun serving his six-game suspension under the personal conduct policy and, barring yet another last-minute legal twist, will not play Sunday when the Cowboys face the Falcons in Atlanta. He will have missed four games by the time his appeal of the rejection of his injunction is heard by a federal appeals court Dec. 1.

So, from a purely practical standpoint, was it worth it for the NFLPA, Elliott and the Cowboys?

In the union’s case, that question is yet to be answered. Certainly the NFLPA was doing all that it could for Elliott. But for the union, the issues are bigger than one suspension and one case. The NFLPA wants a fundamentally different system of player justice than the one used by Goodell and the league under the collective bargaining agreement and the personal conduct policy. In the meantime, the union is doing what it can to ensure that cases are decidedly as fairly as possible, in its view, and players’ rights are protected as much as possible under the current system.

But those changes probably will have to come, ultimately, at the bargaining table as part of the next CBA rather than in the courts. The union managed to delay the Elliott suspension for half a season. But now Elliott is about to sit. The NFLPA managed to delay the four-game suspension of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, through the courts, for an entire season in the Deflategate case. But Brady sat out the first four games of last season. The union managed to prevail in court in a disciplinary case involving Adrian Peterson, only to lose on appeal.

So the union’s biggest recent victories in court in major cases of player discipline have not been lasting. The lasting change in the system of player discipline and Goodell’s role in it most likely will have to be achieved in labor negotiations. The league has expressed a desire to move forward in negotiations on the next CBA. One person familiar with the NFL’s inner workings said in recent days that the league would be willing to reduce Goodell’s authority in player discipline as part of the next CBA negotiations if the union is willing to make a bargaining-table concession of some sort in return.

Related: [Letter from Cowboys’ lawyer says Jerry Jones believes Falcons’ Arthur Blank misled owners about Roger Goodell’s contract extension; NFL fires back]

“He’d give that up,” the person said. “But he’s not going to give it up for nothing. The players will have to give something up if they want that. The problem is, that never matters to the players when you get to the end of a CBA negotiation and it’s time to do the deal. It’s never a priority for the union at that point.”

Elliott has denied that he was guilty of domestic violence in a series of incidents last year in Ohio involving his former girlfriend. He was not charged with a crime. But the NFL determined after its investigation that Elliott, in its view, was guilty of domestic violence.

Elliott has said the courtroom challenge was, for him, about justice and his reputation. Was it worth it for him? Only he can answer that.

But in terms of on-field considerations for Elliott and the Cowboys, it’s highly debatable whether the decision to go to court was a good one, in retrospect. Elliott could have missed the first six games of the season. He would have returned and played the past two games, and the Cowboys would have him in the lineup for the second half of the regular season and beyond. He would have been available for the season’s biggest games.

Would the Cowboys’ record be different from their current 5-3 mark? That’s a difficult case to make, given that their victories have come by 16, 11, 30, 14 and 11 points.

As things now stand, Elliott won’t play again until Christmas Eve. He will have to regain his game sharpness and get back in sync with the Cowboys’ offense in a hurry for the games that could determine the outcome of the Cowboys’ season. In the meantime, they will have to try to get by with backup running backs Alfred Morris, Darren McFadden and Rod Smith and attempt to remain in postseason contention without Elliott.

Good luck with that. The Cowboys might need it.

Around the League

Sherman’s injury… A season of major injuries and controversies that won’t dissipate got worse Thursday night when Seattle’s standout cornerback, Richard Sherman, suffered a ruptured Achilles’ tendon during the Seahawks’ triumph over the Arizona Cardinals. Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll confirmed Sherman’s injury and said that Sherman will miss the remainder of the season. He joins fellow NFL stars Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt and Odell Beckham Jr. on the shelf. It’s been that kind of the season.

Related: [Is it now a certainty that Colin Kaepernick won’t play in the NFL this season?]

Wilson’s concussion evaluation … There are likely to be questions raised about Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson reentering the game Thursday night after being sent to the sideline for a concussion evaluation. Wilson missed only one play after jogging to the sideline and sitting in the area of the team’s medical tent but then, as NBC cameras showed, getting back up and leaving before members of the medical staff had a chance to examine him. Wilson returned to the medical tent following the Seahawks’ next possession. Potential violations of the league’s concussion-evaluation policies are investigated jointly by the league and the union.

Extra Points

There hasn’t been a coaching change during the 2017 season. Oops. Did that just jinx things for Chuck Pagano or Hue Jackson? …

Anyone who thought the New York Giants might fire their coach, Ben McAdoo, before season’s end hasn’t been paying much attention to how the Giants operate. They don’t do such impatient things. …

The clash between Jones and Goodell includes a debate over whether the owners must take another vote to approve Goodell’s pending five-year contract extension once negotiations between the owners’ compensation committee and Goodell are done. The league contends that no further vote of the owners is needed after they voted, 32-0, in May to authorize the compensation committee to negotiate a five-year deal with Goodell. Jones, through Wednesday’s letter delivered to the league and the owners on the compensation committee from a Cowboys’ attorney, contend that owners must vote again.

Games to Watch

Saints at Bills … Who would have guessed entering the season that this would be a big game? But it most certainly is.

Cowboys at Falcons … Dak Prescott vs. Matt Ryan? Nope. Jerry Jones vs. Arthur Blank.

Packers at Bears … If the Packers are going to save their season, there’s no better time than the present.

Vikings at Redskins …  In Case Keenum the Vikings trust.

Games to Miss

Giants at 49ers … If these are the final days of Eli Manning with the Giants, it’s not the way you’d like to see him going out.

Browns at Lions … If the Browns don’t file the final score properly with the league office, can they still be charged with the loss?

Jets at Buccaneers … Maybe Ryan Fitzpatrick will be able to complete more passes to Jets players now that he’s starting for the Buccaneers.

Read more on the NFL:

Jerry Jones believes Arthur Blank misled owners about Roger Goodell’s contract extension

Aaron Hernandez suffered from most severe CTE ever found in a person his age

Court denies Ezekiel Elliott’s latest injunction request, Cowboys star again suspended by NFL

The NFL studied every concussion over two seasons. What happens next may be up to manufacturers.

The end is near for Eli Manning with the Giants. Just how near is up for debate.

What’s going wrong with Kareem Hunt? Nothing. The Chiefs’ O-line is to blame.


Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.

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