The NFL’s six-game suspension of Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was upheld Tuesday by a league-appointed arbitrator. But Elliott remained eligible to play in the Cowboys’ season-opening game this weekend as the focus of the case shifted to the courtroom and another legal showdown over a disciplinary measure already underway between the league and the players’ union.
Attorneys for the league said in federal court in Texas that Elliott will be eligible to play for the Cowboys against the New York Giants in Sunday night’s nationally televised opener in Arlington, Tex. The court is set to rule by Friday on a request by the NFL Players Association for a temporary restraining order that would keep the suspension on hold beyond this weekend. As things stand, Elliott’s six-game suspension would begin in Week 2 of the season, pending the court’s ruling.
The NFL filed its own lawsuit in federal court in New York, seeking to have its suspension of Elliott and arbitration ruling affirmed. That sets up a legal tussle over the proper jurisdiction for the case.
Harold Henderson, a former labor-relations executive for the league who was assigned by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to hear and resolve Elliott’s appeal, rejected it and reaffirmed the suspension imposed by Goodell under the sport’s personal conduct policy.
“We received Arbitrator Harold Henderson’s decision to uphold Mr. Elliott’s suspension of six games,” said a written statement released by Elliott’s attorneys Tuesday night. “We are extremely disappointed with Mr. Henderson’s inability to navigate through league politics, and follow the evidence and, most importantly, his [conscience].
“The evidence that Mr. Elliott and his team presented on appeal clearly demonstrated that Mr. Elliott was the victim of a conspiracy orchestrated by the National Football League and its officers to keep exonerating evidence from the decision-makers, including the advisors and Roger Goodell. The only just decision was to overturn the suspension in its entirety. Mr. Elliott is looking forward to having his day in federal court where the playing field will be level and the NFL will have to answer for its unfair and unjust practices.”
The league declined further comment Tuesday night, saying through a spokesman that Henderson’s ruling spoke for itself. The NFLPA did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.
Henderson wrote in his ruling that it is “not the responsibility, nor within the authority of, the Hearing Officer to conduct a de novo review of the case and second guess his decision.” The investigatory and disciplinary processes followed by the league in the case were fair, consistent and in compliance with the personal conduct policy “in every respect,” Henderson wrote.
“Here the process for imposing discipline outlined in the Policy has been followed closely, step by step,” Henderson wrote in his ruling. “I find it unnecessary to reexamine all the evidence presented in this record because my careful and diligent review of everything the Commissioner reviewed and relied on draws me to the conclusion that the record contains sufficient credible evidence to support whatever determinations he made. He is entitled to deference on those judgments absent irregularities not present here. While the record contains inconsistencies in statements, an adjudicator makes informed judgments on the credibility of witnesses and evidence.”
If the suspension stands, Elliott would play the opener and then miss games against the Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins. He would be eligible to return for a Nov. 5 game at home against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Two people familiar with the NFL’s inner workings had said earlier Tuesday that the league did not regard 4 p.m. Tuesday as the deadline by which Elliott’s appeal had to be resolved for his suspension to take effect this week. That is the generally followed practice in such disciplinary matters, but it is not a formal rule.
The league reversed course in court in Texas later Tuesday, however, and said it would allow Elliott to play this weekend. U.S. District Judge Amos L. Mazzant III is set to make his ruling by Friday evening. If Mazzant grants the request for a temporary restraining order, Elliott would remain eligible to play while his case is pending.
Elliott was the NFL’s leading rusher last season as a rookie, and the Cowboys’ Super Bowl aspirations for this season are tied largely to the on-field brilliance of Elliott and second-year quarterback Dak Prescott. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has been publicly supportive of Elliott, saying repeatedly he believes there is no evidence Elliott is guilty of domestic violence and that a suspension is not warranted.
The six-game suspension is the baseline penalty for a first offense of domestic violence under the terms of the revised personal conduct policy enacted by the league and the owners of the teams in December 2014.
The NFL, after a lengthy investigation, determined that Elliott, in its view, was violent toward his then-girlfriend in a series of incidents last year. Authorities in Columbus, Ohio, did not charge Elliott with a crime. But the personal conduct policy does not require that a player be charged with or convicted of a crime for the league to take disciplinary action.
The NFLPA and Elliott’s legal representatives argued in his appeal that the league ignored evidence raising doubts about the credibility of Elliott’s accuser and conducted a flawed investigation. But Henderson sided with Goodell and the league.
The NFLPA’s court filing called the NFL’s appeal process fundamentally unfair and cited the testimony during the appeal hearing of Kia Wright Roberts, the league’s director of investigations. Roberts reportedly testified that she interviewed Elliott’s accuser and would not have recommended discipline against Elliott. The NFLPA contended that Roberts was kept from conveying that conclusion to Goodell and the outside advisers consulted by Goodell in the case.
The league has maintained that Goodell was aware of Roberts’s reservations but made his disciplinary decision based on the totality of the evidence. The NFLPA, in its court filing, also cited Henderson’s denial of the union’s request to have Elliott’s accuser testify at the appeal hearing.
The league had filed a motion opposing the NFLPA’s request for a temporary restraining order and also asked the court to dismiss the union’s underlying case.
The NFLPA never has regarded Henderson as a neutral arbitrator, given his status as a former league employee. The union has sought to reduce Goodell’s role in the player disciplinary process and have players’ appeals of disciplinary measures taken by the league resolved by an outside arbitrator.
Henderson did reduce a 10-game suspension imposed by the league on Greg Hardy to four games in 2015. He upheld a suspension of Adrian Peterson in another high-profile case. The league’s handling of cases involving Ray Rice, Hardy and Peterson in 2014 produced widespread criticism of Goodell and the NFL and led to the personal conduct policy being reworked.
The union has challenged disciplinary measures taken against Rice, Hardy, Peterson and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, either through the sport’s internal procedures under its collective bargaining agreement or in court, with mixed success.
Brady and the NFLPA scored a legal victory when Brady’s four-game suspension for his alleged role in the Deflategate scandal was overturned by a federal judge, keeping the quarterback eligible to play the entire 2015 season. But Brady sat out the first four games of last season after the NFL prevailed on appeal and the suspension was reinstated.
That ruling by the federal appeals court reinforced Goodell’s authority in player discipline. Elliott’s suspension was implemented under the personal conduct policy, while Brady’s fell under the sport’s integrity-of-the-game rules. But legal experts have said that Elliott faces a difficult task to have his suspension nullified in court, given the deference given by judges to arbitration decisions and to any organization’s collectively bargained system for resolving disputes.