Navigating Ezekiel Elliott’s Legal Plays
Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys has been fighting a 6 game misconduct ban since the start of the football season. His legal moves have allowed him to delay his suspension but on October 12th, the NFL won a motion to reinstate the suspension. Since this leaves most of us navigating a fairly confusing legal struggle, here is what we understand so far about the suspension and whether it can be enforced.
In the summer of 2016, Elliott’s then girlfriend alleged abuse and filed a report with the police. Several more incidents came to light since then, some which occurred before Elliott was signed by the Cowboys, and some after his signing. These include other alleged assaults on the same girlfriend, as well as an altercation at a bar, and a celebration where Elliott pulled down a woman’s top and exposed her in public. In all these cases, the police have been unable to pursue charges for numerous reasons related to lack of evidence.
However, the NFL code of conduct, which we have discussed before is explicit about addressing misbehavior regardless of the criminal outcome, if any. So the NFL initiated an internal investigation which included a panel of experts, including former New Jersey Attorney General, Peter Harvey; Mary Jo White, a former US attorney; Tonya Lovelace, a domestic violence expert and CEO of Women of Color Network; and pro football hall of famer, Kenneth Houston. Together they conducted a review of the evidence, including texts, pictures and other records, police reports, witness statements and extensive interviews with the victim as well as Elliott and his representatives. They decided a six game suspension would be appropriate, which is the minimum suspension for a first time offense according to their conduct policy. The policy was updated in 2014 after the Ray Rice domestic violence incident, where the NFL was criticized for not taking player discipline seriously enough.
At this point, which was near the start of the football season, Elliott’s union, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) began making their legal moves on his behalf. They filed an appeal against the ruling to the NFL arbitrator appointed in this case, Harold Henderson, arguing that the accuser was unreliable, the proceedings secretive and unfair, and that the evidence is inconsistent. They further sought a restraining order in court which would temporarily keep the NFL from suspending Elliott.
Henderson decided to uphold the ban. His decision was not based on whether he found Elliott guilty or innocent, but whether the proceedings were fair and consistent with NFL policies and procedures. However Elliott was permitted to play the first game while the question of a restraining order was settled in court.
But before the restraining order was addressed, the NFLPA filed a preliminary injunction, arguing the NFL proceedings were unfair and the ruling to uphold the suspension should be dismissed. Upon review of the procedures and the arbitrator’s ruling, the Court ruled against the NFL. The judge found that there was enough doubt as to the transparency of the proceedings to grant the injunction, which is what has allowed Elliott to continue to play since the start of the season.
In response, the NFL filed an appeal with the Fifth Circuit Court to overrule the decision that allowed Elliott to keep playing. The Court agreed to hear arguments on October 2nd and last week they made their decision in favor of the NFL, effectively reinstating the ban.
This brings us to the present, where Elliott’s legal team has revived its attempt at the temporary restraining order. On Tuesday the 17th, the Court looked like it would reject this motion. But by the end of the day the restraining order was granted and Elliott was set to play again in time for the 49ers game. The next legal battle is scheduled for October 30th which means Elliott will be playing against Washington the Sunday before.
This back and forth between NFL administrative processes and formal legal proceedings has been confusing, and followed a similar pattern to Tom Brady’s previous legal battle against his four game suspension for the now infamous “deflategate.” Elliott has won the latest legal round, but the war is far from over for him.