The next stage of a courtroom showdown between the NFL and one of the league's superstars unfolded Friday when a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction curtailing a six-game suspension the league imposed on Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. The decision changes both the trajectory of Elliott's 2017 season and the possible duration of the legal battle.
The initial suspension stemmed from a series of incidents between Elliott and a former girlfriend back in 2016. Despite no criminal charges levied against Elliott, the NFL decided that he had violated the personal conduct policy. Elliott and the NFLPA appealed the case, kicking off an arbitration process that yielded a win for the league. As a next step, Elliott and the union filed for a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order in a Texas federal court.
The NFL and Elliott continue to debate the facts at the heart of his case. However, the court did not opine on any of those issues. Instead, it dealt only with the matter of fairness during the arbitration process, specifically whether arbitrator Harold Henderson erred in not allowing league commissioner Roger Goodell or Elliott's accuser Tiffany Thompson to testify.
"The question before the Court is merely whether Elliott received a fundamentally fair hearing before the arbitrator. The answer is he did not," federal judge Mazzant stated in his decision. "The Court finds, based upon the injunction standard, that Elliott was denied a fundamentally fair hearing by Henderson's refusal to allow Thompson and Goodell to testify at the arbitration hearing."
The NFL issued a public statement in the wake of the court's decision, reiterating its belief that "the investigation and evidence supported the Commissioner's decision and that the process was meticulous and fair throughout." The NFLPA responded with a statement of its own, condemning the owners for an "imposed" system that continues to create distractions from the game.
Before the court granted the injunction, Elliott had already gained clearance to suit up for the Cowboys' season opener against the New York Giants. The NFL determined that due to the timing of the arbitration decision and the then-pending nature of the NFLPA's federal lawsuit, it would allow the running back to play Sunday before serving any suspension time.
However, with the six-game ban indefinitely postponed, it appears possible, if not likely, that Elliott will avoid missing any time this season.
And that could have extremely meaningful ramifications for the Cowboys. The team already established itself as one of the NFC's premier squads. Quarterback Dak Prescott has put together a solid training camp and preseason by all accounts, and the offensive line seems to have fully adjusted to the departures of Ronald Leary and Doug Free. Now, with Elliott presumably in tow for the full schedule, the offense has the ingredients to potentially become the best in the league. If nothing else, Dallas looks set to enter every game as the favorite over the next 17 weeks.
Still, the controversy surrounding Elliott's suspension looks far from over. The NFL will continue to pursue any avenue that results in the running back missing the six games. Conversely, Elliott and the NFLPA, buoyed by their win on Friday, have even more incentive to push back against commissioner discipline as long as possible. Like the legal matter between the league and Tom Brady, it could take multiple years to reach a final resolution.