Following a decision from federal Judge Amos Mazzant, Ezekiel Elliott is on track to suit up for the 2017-18 NFL season, and in all likelihood will be available for the full season despite a six-game suspension looming over his head.
Mazzant, who granted Elliott's request for a temporary restraining order (TRO) and a preliminary injunction, based his decision on the process through which the NFL reached a decision. The judge claimed the NFL's ruling does not live up to the legal standard necessary to prevent Elliott from playing games at the beginning of the new NFL season, and part of his ruling reads as follows:
The court is being called upon to determine, at this preliminary stage, whether Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott received a fundamentally fair arbitration hearing. The question of whether there was credible evidence of domestic abuse is not before the court. Nor are any of the underlying facts in the dispute between Elliott and Tiffany Thompson. 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.
If the legalese isn't clear, Mazzant has not disputed claims that Elliott abused Thompson, his ex-girlfriend, nor has the court ruled on any of Elliott's other alleged indiscretions off the field. This ruling is a simple evaluation of the arbitration process that led to Elliott's suspension, which Mazzant believes is not up to snuff.
The impact of this is presently unknown, but there are potentially significant consequences for Elliott and the league. While the TRO will last just two weeks, a preliminary restraining order can stretch out for months, until Judge Mazzant has time to review the lawsuit Elliott has brought forth to vacate a recent arbitration decision from NFL hearing officer Harold Henderson. Henderson previously upheld Roger Goodell's decision to suspend Elliott for six games.
In the best case scenario for Elliott, Mazzant would not end up reviewing the case until some time after the season, allowing Elliott to play this season for Dallas and worry about the consequences next off-season. Assuming Mazzant has other cases lined up, it's reasonable to think he wouldn't be able to just move this up to the top of his priority list.
There is precedent for this in recent NFL history; Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was able to win a legal battle over Deflategate in September 2015, and the league did not win an appeal until April 2016. Some NFL insiders believe this is the most likely timeline for Elliott's case to follow. ESPN's Adam Schefter spoke to at least one source who believes the running back will be available for the entire 2017-18 season.
Asked meaning of judge ruling that Ezekiel Elliott "did not receive a fundamentally fair hearing", source texted, "Zeke plays all year."— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 8, 2017
However, Brady's case differs from Elliott's in a couple distinct ways, and the most important point rests in what both men won in their court decisions. Brady was able to get a judge to vacate the NFL's arbitration decision, effectively overturning the suspension handed down in his corresponding arbitration hearing. Elliott, by contrast, was only able to get Mazzant to acknowledge that the league's decision-making process was flawed, not that the decision itself could be thrown out until further notice.
There's more bad news for Elliott: appeals for injunctions tend to move quicker in the legal world, and the NFL can push to have the original suspension acknowledged and upheld. They have done so in the past in broader cases; after a judge granted NFL players a preliminary injunction during the 2011 NFL lockout, the league quickly won an appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which reversed that injunction decision.
The league appears eager to follow a similar path on the Elliott case, and they defended their decision-making process in a brief statement released on Friday.
"We strongly believe that the investigation and evidence supported the Commissioner's decision and that the process was meticulous and fair throughout," read the statement.
At the very least, Elliott will suit up for the Cowboys in Week One, but his situation will continue to be fluid as the season wears on. The league will press to stamp their authority on the situation sooner rather than later, while Elliott and his Cowboys teammates will hope the case gets pushed back far into the future.
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