The NFL has immediately enforced its suspension on Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott after being cleared to do so Thursday afternoon by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said the court ruling is significant and the league expects Elliott to serve a six-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy barring another court judgment.
“I don’t want to oversimplify this, but it’s significant because Mr. Elliott is now suspended,” Lockhart said on a conference call with reporters Friday morning. “He will not play over the next six games unless there’s some other affirmative judgment in this case.
“I’m not going to get into handicapping either what the Players Association or what any court might do, but I think it’s certainly a significant move to affirm our right to enforce our personal conduct policy and enforce it immediately.
“It’s an important part of our personal conduct policy to apply the discipline in a timely manner and not allow it to be postponed or maneuvered in a way that gets to issues that we hold very important that is both timely discipline and the competitive issues that are so important to us here at the league.”
Elliott and the NFLPA have 14 days to file a petition for a rehearing, or they could pursue another injunction through the Southern District of New York, although that court has been favorable to the NFL in the past.
Even though Elliott and the NFLPA have options and a window to make a decision on how to proceed next in the legal system, Lockhart said the league is enforcing its suspension immediately.
“You’re talking about apples and oranges here,” Lockhart said. “We have our rules and procedures and discipline and the courts have theirs. In this particular case, the court of appeals gave us the authority to go ahead and enforce our discipline.”
If Elliott serves his six-game suspension immediately, he would not be eligible to return until the Nov. 30 game against the Washington Redskins.
Lockhart defended the league’s investigation into Elliott that lasted more than a year. Elliott’s ex-girlfriend, Tiffany Thompson, accused him of domestic violence in July 2016.
Columbus, Ohio, prosecutors declined to pursue charges because of misleading and inconsistent information from Thompson. But the NFL determined that Elliott used physical force against Thompson at least three times.
The league suspended Elliott on Aug. 11 and arbitrator Harold Henderson upheld the ruling following Elliott’s appeal on Sept. 5.
“We hold our players to a standard that is not reliant from what local law enforcement does, or what any individual prosecutor may do in the country,” Lockhart said. “We’ve invested a lot in holding our players to a high standard. We’ve invested a lot in being able to do our own independent investigations. This investigation went on for almost a year, it was thorough, it was comprehensive and, most importantly, it was fundamentally fair to the player.
“As far as our personal conduct policy and on issues of domestic violence, we are sending a strong message that this kind of behavior is not acceptable in the NFL and our workplace. We will continue to look into any case that comes to our attention, investigate it and apply the appropriate discipline.”
Owner Jerry Jones said in a radio interview Friday on 105.3 The Fan that he does not believe Elliott was treated fairly by the league and called Thursday’s court decision a “setback.” But, he said, Elliott and his representatives are still working to get the suspension overturned. Jones did not want to speculate on what Elliott’s team might do.
“It’s not the thing to do right now to get into how we will respond, but we support Zeke,” Jones said. “I’m very familiar with all of the facts and the details of this case, very familiar. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done regarding law. And Zeke did not get treated very fair here.”
The league disagrees, of course, and feels it had a fair process in determining Elliott should be suspended.
Lockhart acknowledged that the league hopes to have investigations that are done in “the most prompt, efficient and comprehensive way we can.”
He blamed Elliott and his representatives for delaying this investigation process that lasted more than a year.
“We could have done this [quicker] if cooperation was more timely and forthcoming,” Lockhart said. “This could have been wrapped up sooner.”
Elliott, the NFL rushing champion in 2016, leads the Cowboys with 393 rushing yards on 105 carries with two touchdowns through the first five games. He also has 134 receiving yards and a score.
From a football standpoint, the the 2-3 start with Elliott in the lineup is a disappointment. Now the Cowboys face a six-game stretch that includes three games on the road, matchups against three division leaders and two against NFC East foes (the Redskins and Eagles).
The Cowboys are likely to start Alfred Morris in his place, though Rod Smith and Darren McFadden will combine to help fill the void at running back.
Jones expressed confidence in the other running backs on the roster, starting with Morris, should Elliott have to serve the six-game suspension.
“By keeping Morris and McFadden, we’ve got two outstanding veteran backs,” Jones said. “That’s the way I look at it. That’s the way we’ll have to go with it. It’s obvious that football itself says that if you don’t make plans for the unexpected or if you don’t make plans for the adversity, then you don’t understand the game. Because you’re going to get, as sure as you say the word, as sure as you put your foot on the pedal, things are not going to go the way you want them like it or not.
“We’re ready for if in fact Zeke can’t play.”