Ezekiel Elliott Suspension Case is Latest Legal Battleground for NFL vs. NFLPA

Let’s get ready to rumble. The arbitrator’s decision to uphold the Cowboys running back’s six-game suspension sets the stage for two familiar rivals to go at each other once again
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Here’s the first thing you need to know: Nothing really changed on Tuesday night.

Yes, arbitrator Harold Henderson upheld the decision made by commissioner Roger Goodell to suspend Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott for six games. The truth is, Henderson could have knocked this down to three games, or conditionally to four, or whatever else short of vacating the penalty completely (which was never happening based on the league’s recent history), and we’d have reached the same conclusion.

And that conclusion is the NFL and NFLPA are about to duke out in court again.

On Wednesday, Elliott will report to the Cowboys training facility for the NFL’s first game week of 2017. Dallas plays the Giants and Elliott will be eligible to play. Simultaneously this week, the district court in Sherman, Texas, will rule on Elliott’s request for a temporary restraining order (TRO) before close of business on Friday.

The NFL and the NFLPA do not see eye to eye on the issue of the Ezekiel Elliott suspension.

The NFL and the NFLPA do not see eye to eye on the issue of the Ezekiel Elliott suspension.

If he’s granted the TRO, Elliott can play while his case is pending in the district court, and it’s all together possible it could be there for the duration of the 2017 season. If he’s not, then he has to serve his suspension starting in Week 2.

To get the TRO, Elliott’s legal team has to prove two main things. One is that he’d suffer irreparable harm by serving the suspension, which is very doable. And two, he has to show a likelihood of winning on the merits of his case. This one is more difficult given how the second circuit court of appeals ruled on Goodell’s power under Article 46 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement in the Tom Brady Deflategate case last year.

Those on the ground in Texas said that Judge Amos Mazzant III handled the TRO hearing late Tuesday in a way that seemed favorable to Elliott. But I can tell you, from my own experience having covered these, that reading into those things can be dangerous. Judges sometimes play devil’s advocate in these circumstances, and so any guess into what might be coming down the pike on Friday is just that.

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Either way, this isn’t close to over, and the next steps will put the NFL’s investigative arm—launched in the aftermath of the Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson cases of 2014—under the judicial microscope again. In this case, the focus will be on lead investigator Kia Roberts’ role in the process. The union claimed her opinion that Elliott should not be suspended was kept from Goodell and his staff, which the NFL vehemently denied.

“They claim a grand conspiracy to keep one of our investigator’s opinion from the commissioner. That assertion, I can say, is categorically false,” NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said in a phone conversation last week. “The commissioner was aware of all the staff’s views on matters of evidence and the investigative report, considered all of them, went an extra step to consider and appoint four outside experts to review all the evidence, and then made his final decision.

“There was no attempt to keep any piece of evidence or any opinion from him. He was aware of all of it.”

The NFLPA declined comment Tuesday night, but my understanding is the union is examining public statements from the league that may implicate Goodell.

And round and round we go. If this feels familiar, it should. We’ve been here before.

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Meanwhile, Elliott’s reputation hangs in the balance, one reason why he’s intent on fighting the league’s assertion of domestic violence through the court system.

What we do know, for sure, is that he’ll be able to play football Sunday night at AT&T Stadium. We’ll also get what the NFL and Elliott wanted to avoid: the case being central to one of Week 1’s two showcase games, giving NBC a topic it will have to address that hardly shines a positive light on anyone involved.

That, of course, will be four days after Goodell makes his return to Gillette Stadium, with the expectation being that he’ll get a less-than-polite welcome back from the New England fan base, a result of how the NFL handled another one of these cases.

A little bit of a weird coincidence? Sure. But it’s also another indication that while the venue and the characters involved may be different, too much of this is all the same.

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