Federal Judge Halts Ezekiel Elliott Suspension
Once again, the National Football League sees its disciplinary and appeal process criticized by a Federal Judge.
Late yesterday, a Federal District Court Judge in Texas issued an order halting the suspension that the National Football League had imposed against Dallas Cowboys Running Back Ezekiel Elliot, meaning that he will be able to play in Sunday’s home opener against the New York Giants:
The Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott will likely play several games, if not the whole season, after a federal judge Friday issued an injunction halting his suspension for a domestic abuse accusation.
The injunction lets Elliott, one of the league’s biggest stars, play while he appeals a six-game suspension that the National Football League commissioner, Roger Goodell, imposed as a result of an accusation from July 2016 that Elliott beat his former girlfriend.
Prosecutors filed no charges against Elliott, citing inconsistent statements from witnesses, and he and the players’ union, the N.F.L. Players Association, appealed the suspension, saying, among other things, that Goodell did not hear out an N.F.L. investigator who doubted there was enough evidence to justify the penalty.
The league had defended the penalty by saying its investigators had closely reviewed the case and interviewed several witnesses, but Ezekiel’s lawyers had cast doubt on that.
Still, this week, a league-appointed arbitrator upheld the suspension, but because of a technicality related to the timing of the ruling Elliott was cleared to play in the team’s season-opening game Sunday against the Giants. In response to the arbitrator’s ruling, the union sought the injunction in federal court in Texas. Judge Amos L. Mazzant granted it while he hears the case, which could take months, meaning Elliott will likely play at least a good part of the season.
Mazzant said the case included “unique and egregious facts” that required “court intervention.”
Soon after the injunction was issued, Elliott posted on Instagram a compilation video of some of his best plays from last season, including several touchdowns, set to the song “Wins and Losses” by Meek Mill.
Elliott’s case echoes what happened to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who was suspended for four games in 2015. He ended up playing the entire season because a federal judge in New York overturned the suspension, which stemmed from a scheme by team employees to deflate game balls. A federal appeals court reinstated the suspension, so Brady did not play during the first four games last season.
The N.F.L. has asked a federal judge in New York to affirm the suspension. The league contends New York is the proper venue to hear such cases because the league’s headquarters is in the city. Not coincidentally, the league has won many cases in that court.
However the case ends, the fight will continue to strain relations between the league and the union.
The players association, which is representing Elliott in court, has long complained about the commissioner’s broad authority to penalize players, a policy it says should be renegotiated.
“Commissioner discipline will continue to be a distraction from our game for one reason: because N.F.L. owners have refused to collectively bargain a fair and transparent process that exists in other sports,” the union said in a statement. “This ‘imposed’ system remains problematic for players and the game, but as the honest and honorable testimony of a few N.F.L. employees recently revealed, it also demonstrates the continued lack of integrity within their own league office.”
Though Goodell has softened his position on the personal conduct policy by no longer hearing appeals himself, he continues to assess suspensions. And while the league has hired investigators to do their own research separate from law enforcement, inconsistencies remain in how the league determines which players should be suspended and for how long.
More from ESPN:
Federal judge Amos Mazzant on Friday granted a request by the NFL Players Association for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to prevent the implementation of a six-game suspension for Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Elliott was already eligible to play in Sunday’s season opener against the New York Giants, but his suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy was to begin Monday. With the injunction granted, Elliott likely will be able to continue playing as the legal process plays out.
If the request had been denied, Elliott would have appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to ask for an immediate stay.
“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,” Elliott’s attorneys said in a statement Friday night. “This is just the beginning of the unveiling of the NFL’s mishandling as it relates to Mr. Elliott’s suspension.”
On Aug. 11, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced Elliott’s six-game suspension after the league found that he inflicted physical harm on former girlfriend Tiffany Thompson in July 2016 in Columbus, Ohio. Elliott has denied the claims.
Columbus authorities did not pursue charges against Elliott, but the league’s personal conduct policy has a lower burden of proof threshold than criminal convictions. Goodell worked with a four-person advisory committee to determine whether Elliott deserved to be punished. However, it was revealed during the appeal process that Kia Roberts, the NFL’s lead investigator, had issues with Thompson’s credibility and would not have recommended discipline for Elliott based on what she had found.
On Tuesday, appeals officer Harold Henderson upheld the suspension as Mazzant was hearing the NFLPA’s request for the TRO at the Paul Brown District Court in Sherman, Texas.
“The question before the Court is merely whether Elliott received a fundamentally fair hearing before the arbitrator. The answer is he did not,” Mazzant wrote in his ruling Friday. “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.”
Mazzant also wrote that “the NFL’s breach of the [collective bargaining agreement] is only compounded by Henderson’s breach of the CBA. Specifically, Henderson denied access to certain procedural requirements, which were necessary to be able to present all relevant evidence at the hearing.”
The NFL, in a statement released later Friday, said it disagreed with the court’s assertion.
“We strongly believe that the investigation and evidence supported the Commissioner’s decision and that the process was meticulous and fair throughout,” the league said.
In his ruling, Mazzant noted that the court was not ruling on whether there was credible evidence that Elliott committed domestic abuse.
At the heart of the NFLPA’s case is what it believes is a lack of “fundamental fairness” in the appeals process, noting Henderson was not an independent arbitrator and they were not allowed to question Thompson about the series of events two summers ago.
“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 statement Friday. “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 Cowboys did not comment on the court’s decision.
In many respects, of course, this case mirrors what happened to New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady in connection with the so-called ‘Deflategate’ scandal. In that case, Brady was suspended for four games after an NFL investigation into allegations that the Patriots had used footballs deflated below league standards during the 2015 AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts. Brady appealed that decision pursuant to the process set forth in the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, but league Commissioner Roger Goodell, who had participated in the underlying investigation and the decision on what punishment to impose, ruled against him. At that point, Brady and the National Football League Player’s Association filed suit in Federal Court in New York against the ruling, arguing that the NFL had violated both the terms of the CBA and the Federal law governing arbitrations. In that case, the Federal District Court Judge ended up ruling in Brady’s favor and imposing a stay on the suspension that effectively lasted for the entirety of the 2015-2016 season. Meanwhile, the NFL had appealed the District Court ruling to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and, in a ruling in April of last year, that Court overturned the District Court ruling, siding with the league and holding that there was sufficient evidence to support the suspension and that there had been no violations of Federal arbitration laws. After initially stating that they would appeal that ruling, Brady and the NFLPA decided to abandon the appeal and Brady served his suspension at the start of the 2016 season. The Patriots, of course, went on win the Super Bowl that season.
The allegations against Elliott, of course, are far more serious than those that were made against Brady. Regardless of one’s sports preferences, it is axiomatic that an allegation of domestic violence is qualitatively different from an allegation that a player may have violated a rule of the game. In that respect, the Elliott case is more like the allegations against former Baltimore Ravens Running Back Ray Rice, whose case opened a floodgate of scrutiny on the NFL over the way it treated players accused of domestic violence. In that case, where the league initially suspended Rice for only three games and they sought to expand it to an indefinite suspension when the tape of Rice’s beating of his then-fiancee in a hotel elevator was made public, a Court ended up ruling in Rice’s favor but it was too late since he had been released by the Ravens and essentially blackballed by the rest of the league. Rice has not played professional football of any kind in the ensuing three years and is unlikely to return to football as a player, or in any other capacity, at any time in the future. Rice’s case happened to coincide with several other cases involving domestic abuse by players. Minnesota Vikings Running Back Adrian Peterson, for example, was suspended in November 2015 for the remainder of the season after it was revealed that he was charged with child abuse in a case involving disciplining one of his sons. Peterson’s suspension was initially upheld by an arbitrator, only to be later stayed by a Federal Court Judge and later lifted by the league. That same year, Dallas Cowboys Defensive End Greg Hardy who was suspended for ten games after being convicted of domestic violence, although that finding was not official under applicable North Carolina law. Eventually, though, Hardy’s suspension was reduced to four games by an arbitrator, and he ultimately returned to the Cowboys, although he has not played in an NFL regular season game since 2015.
James Joyner outlined the factual allegations against Elliot in his post about the case last Friday, so there’s no need to restate those allegations in detail. In reading Judge Mazzant’s opinion, though, it’s clear that his primary concern appears to be the fact that the NFL ignored many of the questions raised about the veracity of the allegations against Elliot that came up during the course of the investigation, and which ultimately led prosecutors in Ohio to decline to pursue criminal charges against Elliot. Specifically, of course, I’m referring to the fact that the underlying police investigation found that Elliott’s former girlfriend, who had brought the domestic violence charges against him had attempted to blackmail him with a sex tape in an effort to obtain money from him. As James noted, while this doesn’t disprove the allegations against Elliott, it does tend to call the credibility of the complaining witness into question and was likely one of the primary reasons that prosecutors decided not to charge him in the case.
The NFL, of course, was not obligated to follow the same course as the prosecutor, nor is the standard of proof that it can rely upon in determining whether or not Elliott had violated the disciplinary rules of the CBA related to domestic violence and off-field conduct and, if he had, what the appropriate suspension was. In that regard, the league is not required to prove the allegations against Elliott, or any other player accused of a disciplinary violation, beyond a reasonable doubt. Essentially, all that is required is that they have evidence to believe that the allegations are more likely to be true than untrue. Additionally, the CBA seems to allow the league to rely upon an argument that any conduct that could lead to the league being seen in a bad light can be considered worthy of discipline, this standard means that the standard of proof for “wrongful conduct” is low. At the same time, though, it’s worth noting that accused players like Brady, Rice, and Elliott are not completely without rights in the disciplinary process. In addition to the provisions of the CBA itself, the NFL must also be sure to follow the standards set forth by the Federal Arbitration Act, which sets forth standards under which arbitration agreements are generally evaluated. Some states also have their own versions of the FAA that govern the rights of parties participating in private arbitration. It’s worth noting, though, that in both cases the protections available in arbitration are far less than those offered in a courtroom in either a civil or criminal case and that Courts often have a preference in favor of enforcing the terms of an arbitration agreement, in no small part to encourage parties to enter into such agreements rather than resorting to courts for what may be routine disputes.
The next step in this matter, of course, would be an appeal by the league to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. While it’s possible that Court may rule on the imposition of the stay on Elliott’s punishment in relatively short order, the stronger likelihood is that any ruling on the matter won’t come for some time. This would mean that Elliott could end up playing the entirety of the 2017 season while the stay remains in effect and that the Fifth Circuit won’t issue a ruling on the case until some time after it’s over. It’s far too early, of course, to comment on how that appeal might turn out.
In any case, from a sports point of view this is obviously good news for the Cowboys. Last season, the combination of Elliott and rookie Quarterback Dak Prescott proved to be quite crucial to the success the team had on the field, leading to a 13-3 regular season record that was good enough to win the NFC East. although they narrowly lost in the Divisional Round of the playoffs to the Green Bay Packers. With the NFC East looking like it could be more competitive this year than it was last year, the loss of Elliott for six games would have been quite a loss for the Cowboys.
Here is the opinion: