There’s hope for Ezekiel Elliott in fight vs. NFL's 6-game ban, but it’s really slim

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist

For Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, Thursday brought the worst possible news at the best possible time.

Elliott lost another court battle, arguably his most important, as the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 against him which reinstated his six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s domestic violence policy. But the decision comes 10 days before his next NFL game, giving Elliott enough time for one last run into a legal breach. Regardless, the Cowboys star is dealing with worst-case scenarios at this stage, which might shed some light into why Elliott’s lawyer is “exploring all legal options.”

And they aren’t great.

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Ezekiel Elliott is suspended six games for violating the league’s domestic violence policy. If it holds, he’ll be eligible to return to the team on Nov. 24. (AP)
Ezekiel Elliott is suspended six games for violating the league’s domestic violence policy. If it holds, he’ll be eligible to return to the team on Nov. 24. (AP)

Elliott’s best chance at striking down his six-game suspension and dragging the NFL into a potentially telling legal exploration would have happened in front of U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant III. It was Mazzant who granted Elliott an injunction preventing the suspension from taking hold. The federal judge also took shots at the NFL while issuing his opinion, suggesting that the league didn’t give Elliott a fair appeal hearing in front of league-appointed arbitrator Harold Henderson. Overall, Mazzant’s ruling gave the impression that he would have been a difficult judge for the league to deal with if Elliott’s case played out in his court. Now it appears Mazzant will never get his hands on the case – should Elliott choose to continue his pursuit.

That leaves only difficult legal paths ahead. Among them …

The slightest glimmer of hope

Elliott lost his appeal to continue his case in a federal Texas court largely because it was filed before the league’s own appeals process had concluded. Essentially, it was ruled that Elliott’s legal team jumped the gun and Mazzant shouldn’t have accepted jurisdiction over the suit because the league’s collectively bargained process had not yet concluded.

In a way, that decision is good for Elliott because his case is being sent back for dismissal based on when it was filed – and not the actual merits of the case. But the bad news for Elliott is the NFL filed its own lawsuit in a New York district court after Henderson made his arbitration ruling. It means that the NFL did the right thing in the eyes of the law, filing the New York lawsuit at the appropriate time and correct jurisdiction. Now that Elliott’s case in Texas will get bounced, the league’s filing in New York will take precedence. This means Elliott won’t have a chance to re-file back in Texas unless the NFL’s case in New York gets dismissed (which is now extremely unlikely).

What Elliott’s legal team can pray for is this: the league’s filing in New York gets dismissed for some reason, paving the way for Elliott’s legal team to re-file his case in Texas, no longer having the worries of having jumped the gun on arbitration decision. Or in an even unlikelier scenario, Elliott re-files his suit in Texas or somewhere else advantageous, and that somehow overrides the league’s filing in New York. There is almost no chance either of these scenarios happens.

The likelier – and most difficult – legal path

The most likely road will be Elliott’s case being played out in a New York federal courthouse. That is where the league has been victorious in cases against both Adrian Peterson and Tom Brady. This is exactly what his legal team and the NFL Players Association did not want to take place.

The NFL will argue that there is legal precedent from Brady’s case that prevents Elliott from being granted an injunction against his six-game suspension. Further, the league believes that Elliott and the NFLPA are mounting a different version of the same argument that Brady already lost. Specifically, the league believes the federal courts have already established the NFL has the latitude – thanks to the collective-bargaining agreement – to deliver discipline in the manner and process that commissioner Roger Goodell deems appropriate. And in the league’s eyes, the federal courts have agreed that once an arbitrator has affirmed the discipline, the argument is over.

The NFLPA and Elliott’s legal team fundamentally disagree that his case overlaps with Brady’s – largely because of perceived conspiratorial activity it believes took place. The league denies that accusation and says it acted appropriately according to the disciplinary guidelines that were laid out in the CBA.

From there, it’s the same eye-glossing legal wrangling that we’ve heard before, mostly predicated on Goodell using the broad powers that he was granted by the players union in negotiations. Whatever the case, it won’t stop Elliott from seeking an injunction against the league’s suspension in the next 10 days, keeping him on the field. The NFL will argue against it and point to precedent set by the Brady case in New York federal courts.

However that shakes out in the next week or more, Elliott and the NFLPA will likely continue to try and penetrate any rulings against them in court. But this time around, it won’t be the court of his choosing. And that is expected to make all the difference between winning and losing.

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