A federal judge in Texas granted a request by the NFL Players Association for a preliminary injunction that will put the league’s six-game suspension of Ezekiel Elliott on hold and keep the standout second-year running back eligible to play for the Dallas Cowboys while his case is pending in court.
U.S. District Judge Amos L. Mazzant III made his ruling Friday after conducting a hearing Tuesday in Sherman, Tex. The NFLPA argued that Elliott would suffer irreparable harm if he was forced to sit out during the union’s legal challenge of the suspension, imposed by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell under the sport’s personal conduct policy and upheld Tuesday by league-appointed arbitrator Harold Henderson.
“Based upon the preliminary injunction standard, the Court finds, that Elliott did not receive a fundamentally fair hearing, necessitating the Court grant the request for preliminary injunction,” the order by Mazzant said.
It is not clear how long the injunction will keep Elliott eligible to play, although it’s possible it could be for the entire season.
“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,” the NFLPA said in a written statement. “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.”
The league maintained that the process it followed in punishing Elliott was fair and proper.
“We strongly believe that the investigation and evidence supported the Commissioner’s decision and that the process was meticulous and fair throughout,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a written statement. “We will review the decision in greater detail and discuss next steps with counsel, both in the district court and federal court of appeals.”
Attorneys for the NFL said in court Tuesday that Elliott, who led the league in rushing last season as a rookie, would be permitted to play in the Cowboys’ season-opening game Sunday night against the New York Giants in Arlington, Tex. The league had hoped to enforce Elliott’s suspension after that, beginning next week.
Instead, Elliott will remain in the Cowboys’ lineup while the NFL and NFLPA again contest a disciplinary measure against a player in court.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady played the entire 2015 season after a federal judge in New York overturned his four-game suspension imposed by the NFL in the Deflategate case. But a federal appeals court reinstated the suspension, and Brady sat out the first four games of last season.
The league concluded after a lengthy investigation that Elliott was violent toward his then-girlfriend in a series of incidents last year. The six-game suspension imposed by Goodell is the baseline penalty for a first offense of domestic violence under the revised personal conduct policy enacted by the league and the owners in December 2014.
The NFLPA has contended that the league’s investigation was flawed and that the NFL ignored evidence. Kia Wright Roberts, the league’s director of investigations, testified during the appeal hearing that she interviewed Elliott’s accuser and had doubts about her credibility to the point that Roberts would not have recommended discipline against Elliott. The union accused the league of keeping those doubts from being raised to Goodell and the four outside advisers consulted by Goodell during his deliberations.
The league said that Goodell was aware of Wright’s questions but made his ruling based on the entirety of the evidence. The union also cited Henderson’s denial of the NFLPA’s request to have Elliott’s accuser testify at the appeal hearing.
In his decision to grant the injunction, Mazzant focused on Henderson’s failure to have Goodell and Elliott’s accuser testify at the appeal hearing, writing that their “absence effectively deprived Elliott of any chance to have a fundamentally fair hearing.”
Mazzant wrote that the court was not dealing with what happened between Elliott and his accuser, nor with any credibility issues. The court “has a limited role in this case,” Mazzant wrote.
“The question before the Court is merely whether Elliott received a fundamentally fair hearing before the arbitrator,” he wrote. “The answer is he did not.”
Elliott’s attorneys said in a written statement: “We are very pleased that Mr. Elliott will finally be given the opportunity to have an impartial decision-maker carefully examine the NFL’s misconduct. This is just the beginning of the unveiling of the NFL’s mishandling as it relates to Mr. Elliott’s suspension.”
In rejecting Elliott’s appeal, Henderson ruled that Goodell had acted within his authority and that the league had followed the disciplinary procedures put forth by the personal conduct policy. Goodell is empowered to weigh the credibility of witnesses, Henderson wrote in his decision.
The NFL filed its own lawsuit in New York seeking to have the arbitration decision and the suspension affirmed.