The NFL has fought doggedly to preserve the six-game suspension Roger Goodell issued to Ezekiel Elliott. The latest step in that lengthy process is appealing the decision of a federal court in Texas to grant an injunction that will let Elliott play until his lawsuit against the NFL is completed. According to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, the league took that step Monday morning.
In its motion, the NFL said that if the court didn’t issue a ruling by the close of business on Thursday, it would appeal to a higher court. No decision came on Thursday, and the league filed another appeal with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Texas on Friday morning, according to sports and gaming attorney Daniel Wallach.
Elliott’s legal team issued a response shortly thereafter, via NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.
“The NFL’s latest maneuvering appears to be indicative of a league with an agenda: trying to navigate a public relations crisis rather than focus on fairness and fact finding,” the statement read.
What happened? Elliott was handed the suspension following an investigation into domestic violence allegations made against him in July 2016. The investigation lasted more than a year, and Elliott immediately appealed the disciplinary ruling.
The NFLPA filed a lawsuit against the NFL before the appeal ended and added a motion asking for an injunction. Harold Henderson, who was the arbitrator assigned by Goodell to hear the appeal, upheld the league’s decision and Elliott’s suspension.
Judge Amos Mazzant, a federal judge in Texas, decided to grant Elliott’s injunction on Friday.
“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,” Mazzant wrote in his ruling.
Was an appeal the league’s only option? The league could have placed Elliott on the commissioner’s exempt list to circumvent the court’s decision but elected not to do that, according to Mark Maske of The Washington Post.
Putting Elliott on the exempt list would keep him off the field, but he would be paid during his absence.
What happens next? The NFL has appealed Judge Mazzant’s ruling to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The NFL has also filed a motion in Mazzant’s federal court in Texas to change the jurisdiction to a New York City federal court that has historically leaned toward the league’s perspective.
The appeals process and the federal lawsuit aren’t trying to establish guilt or innocence. Elliott was never charged with a crime. These processes simply seek to establish whether or not the NFL acted in a manner that is consistent with its personal conduct policy. Mazzant doesn’t believe it did.
“The NFL’s actions demonstrate that from the very beginning of the decision-making process, a cloud of fundamental unfairness followed Elliott,” Mazzant wrote in his decision. “Unfortunately, this cloud followed Elliott into the arbitration proceedings.”
It’s difficult to project how the appeals court will rule, but the NFL will file an emergency stay with the appeals court if Mazzant declines the appeal or does not deliver a rule by Thursday.
The league is seeking a quick decision for a process that often takes months:
Until there’s a ruling, Elliott will continue to take the field.
On Wednesday, the NFLPA filed a response to the NFL’s appeal of preliminary injunction. "The Stay Motion fails at the threshold because the NFL faces no threat of irreparable harm if the stay is not granted, while others, including both Elliott and the Cowboys, will suffer substantial — in fact, severe and irreparable—harm," the NFLPA said.
Two years ago, a district court vacated Tom Brady’s Deflategate suspension, but a higher court reinstated it on appeal. Still, the time it took meant that Brady was able to be on the field for the entire 2015 season.
Unless the appeals court overturns the lower court’s ruling, Elliott will remain eligible to play at least until the lawsuit is settled. If the injunction is overturned, Elliott’s six-game suspension will begin immediately.