The NFL has taken its case against Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott to the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
The league filed a motion Friday morning for an emergency stay of the preliminary injunction that is keeping Elliott eligible to play until his lawsuit is resolved.
Elliott was suspended for six games without pay on Aug. 11 by the NFL for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, a decision that was upheld on appeal by NFL arbitrator Harold Henderson.
But after Elliott and the NFL Players Association filed for a temporary restraining order based on how the appeal was conducted, U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant ruled the process was “fundamentally unfair,” resulting in the injunction.
The NFL is hoping for a stay decision “by September 19, 2017 (when Week 3 practices begin), but no later than September 26, 2017.”
“We believe the lower court ruling was deeply flawed, based on the merits,” NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters on Friday.
Elliott will play Sunday at Denver in Week 2 under Mazzant’s injunction. He was cleared to play by the NFL in the season opener against the New York Giants before Mazzant’s ruling and rushed for 104 yards on 24 carries in the Cowboys’ 19-3 victory.
Again, while the NFL hopes for a ruling on the stay by Tuesday, Lockhart admits it could take up to two weeks.
Elliott’s attorneys issued the following response: “The NFL’s latest legal maneuvering appears to be indicative of a league with an agenda: trying to navigate a public relations crisis rather than focus on fairness and fact finding. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the NFL believes it can write its own rules and will stop at nothing to further its agenda of enforcing its unfounded assertions regarding Mr. Elliott.
“Most recently this would include the NFL seeking an expedited hearing on staying the preliminary injunction by frivolously arguing that the NFL is somehow ‘irreparably harmed’ by Elliott playing while the Courts decide whether the investigation and appeal was fundamentally unfair. Mr. Elliott and his team will continue to zealously oppose any of the NFL’s court filings.”
A “stay” would prevent the injunction from going into effect throughout the outcome of the appeal, thus forcing Elliott to begin serving his six-game suspension immediately.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said the team is not focused on the court maneuverings. They are focused solely on Sunday’s game against the Broncos.
“We are just focused on football and doing everything we can do to play on our best game on Sunday,” Garrett said. “We are locked in.”
Without an NFL win on an emergency request, the expected court timeline probably would clear Elliott to play his entire second season after he led the league in rushing as a rookie.
Mazzant granted Elliott a preliminary injunction last week. The NFL appealed the decision and asked Mazzant to make an expedited ruling on an emergency stay of his own decision by end of business on Thursday.
Mazzant did not rule as of Friday morning.
The league believes Mazzant defied precedent by granting the NFLPA and Elliott an injunction after finding Elliott didn’t receive a fair appeal in front of league-appointed arbitrator Henderson last month. More importantly, the NFL says Elliott has a slim chance of winning his case, based on prior precedent.
“The court not only entertained a blatantly prematurely challenge, but then found a likelihood of success in a procedural challenge to the arbitrator’s decision,” the NFL’s motion states. “That precedent-defying decision will not stand, and nothing in the stay equities favors delaying an arbitrator’s decision that will almost certainly be vindicated at the end of the proceedings. The misguided order ... should be stayed and then promptly reversed.”
That the NFL would suffer irreparable harm if the court doesn’t grant a stay to the injunction is one of the four key elements to be considered by a court.
The others are likelihood of success on the merits, a balancing of the harms and consideration of the public interest.
Sports law attorney Daniel Wallach said the league’s prospects of getting a stay with the 5th Circuit aren’t great because of the irreparable harm issue.
Simply put, if Elliott loses the case, he can serve the suspension next season, allowing the NFL to uphold its process. So the league gets its pound of flesh sooner or later. If he wins th court case while serving the appeal, however, he can’t get the six games back.
“NFL pretends it’s not an element or a lesser element. Not so,” Wallach says.
Lockart, however, maintains the league is solely focused on the big picture of holding players to a high standard when it comes to domestic violence. He says Elliott’s discipline is in line with that.
“A lot of the coverage has veered toward the relationship between the league office and the union, and the process by which discipline is administered under the [collective bargaining agreement],” Lockhart said. “What’s lost here in this case is the issue of domestic violence. We have been very clear that this is an important issue. We hold our players to a high standard, and to us it does not rest on what any law enforcement or judicial institution makes a decision on.
“We believe when we have evidence and have come to a conclusion that a player has violated the personal conduct policy, there are consequences there. And that is the case here.”
The NFLPA followed up Elliott’s lawyers and used Mazzant’s words in his initial decision on Elliott to blast the NFL.
“Luckily, the NFLPA found the fairness needle in the unfairness haystack ...,” read Mazzant’s words in an NFLPA statement to the media. “Consistent with [the NFL’s] previous actions to suppress [their lead Investigator’s] dissenting opinions, the NFL kept this sequence of events from the NFLPA and Elliott until the arbitration hearing. In fact, had the NFL succeeded in its overall goal, this sequence of events would still be concealed from Elliott and the NFLPA.”