A federal judge blocked Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension over a domestic violence case Friday, setting the stage for a potentially lengthy legal fight with the NFL.
Last year’s league rushing leader was already cleared to play in the opener against the New York Giants on Sunday night before the ruling by U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant.
Mazzant agreed with players’ union lawyers that Elliott didn’t receive a “fundamentally fair” hearing in his appeal and he granted the NFL Players’ Association request for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction blocking the league’s punishment.
Elliott was suspended by Commissioner Roger Goodell in August after the league concluded he had several physical confrontations last summer with Tiffany Thompson, a former girlfriend. Prosecutors in Ohio didn’t pursue the case, citing conflicting evidence.
The 22-year-old Elliott denied Thompson’s allegations in sworn testimony during an appeal hearing last week. He also attended the hearing for a restraining order earlier this week in Sherman, about 65 miles north of Dallas.
“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 joint statement. “This is just the beginning of the NFL’s mishandling as it relates to Mr. Elliott’s suspension.”
Arbitrator Harold Henderson turned down Elliott’s appeal of the suspension the same day as the hearing in federal court. Henderson ruled that the NFL complied with its personal conduct policy in punishing Elliott and rejected any claims that Elliott’s attorneys presented new evidence at the appeal.
Mazzant ruled that Henderson’s decision not to allow Goodell and Thompson to testify helped Elliott’s case in meeting the standard for an injunction to be issued.
“Their absence effectively deprived Elliott of any chance to have a fundamentally fair hearing,” Mazzant wrote.
The union blasted NFL owners in its reaction to Mazzant’s ruling.
“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 union said. “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.”
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league was reviewing the decision and would discuss its next steps with attorney, including possible appeals in district court and with the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“We strongly believe that the investigation and evidence supported the commissioner’s decision and that the process was meticulous and fair throughout,” McCarthy said.
After Henderson’s ruling, the NFL filed a lawsuit asking a federal court in New York to enforce Elliott’s suspension. The Southern District of New York falls under the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which last year backed Goodell’s four-game suspension of New England quarterback Tom Brady in the “Deflategate” case.