FRISCO, Texas — Federal judge Amos Mazzant on Friday granted a request by the NFL Players Association for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to prevent the implementation of a six-game suspension for Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Elliott was already eligible to play in Sunday’s season opener against the New York Giants, but his suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy was to begin Monday. With the injunction granted, Elliott likely will be able to continue playing as the legal process plays out.
If the request had been denied, Elliott would have appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to ask for an immediate stay.
“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 a statement Friday night. “This is just the beginning of the unveiling of the NFL’s mishandling as it relates to Mr. Elliott’s suspension.”
On Aug. 11, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced Elliott’s six-game suspension after the league found that he had inflicted physical harm on former girlfriend Tiffany Thompson in July 2016 in Columbus, Ohio. Elliott has denied the claims.
Columbus authorities did not pursue charges against Elliott, but the league’s personal conduct policy has a lower burden of proof threshold than a criminal conviction. Goodell worked with a four-person advisory committee to determine whether Elliott deserved to be punished. However, it was revealed during the appeal process that Kia Roberts, the NFL’s lead investigator, had issues with Thompson’s credibility and would not have recommended discipline for Elliott based on what she found.
On Tuesday, appeals officer Harold Henderson upheld the suspension as Mazzant was hearing the NFLPA’s request for the TRO at the Paul Brown District Court in Sherman, Texas.
“The question before the Court is merely whether Elliott received a fundamentally fair hearing before the arbitrator. The answer is he did not,” Mazzant wrote in his ruling Friday. “The Court finds, based upon the injunction standard, that Elliott was denied a fundamentally fair hearing by Henderson’s refusal to allow Thompson and Goodell to testify at the arbitration hearing.”
Mazzant also wrote that “the NFL’s breach of the [collective bargaining agreement] is only compounded by Henderson’s breach of the CBA. Specifically, Henderson denied access to certain procedural requirements, which were necessary to be able to present all relevant evidence at the hearing.”
The NFL, in a statement released later Friday, said it disagreed with the court’s assertion.
“We strongly believe that the investigation and evidence supported the Commissioner’s decision and that the process was meticulous and fair throughout,” the league said.
In his ruling, Mazzant noted that the court was not ruling on whether there was credible evidence that Elliott committed domestic abuse.
At the heart of the NFLPA’s case is what it believes is a lack of “fundamental fairness” in the appeals process, noting Henderson was not an independent arbitrator and they were not allowed to question Thompson about the series of events two summers ago.
“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 NFLPA said in a statement Friday. “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.”
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith shared his thoughts on Saturday.
— DeMaurice Smith (@DeSmithNFLPA) September 9, 2017
The Cowboys did not comment on the court’s decision.
Elliott posted a video on Instagram with the caption: “Momma told me if ya fall never stay down.”
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 Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the Deflategate case.
Brady won in federal court before the league prevailed, but the legal process delayed the suspension for a year. The five-time Super Bowl champion served the punishment at the start of last season.
New Orleans Saints running back Adrian Peterson, who was suspended over a child abuse case in Texas while with the Minnesota Vikings, had his punishment upheld by Henderson and later overturned by a federal judge.
In its statement released Friday night, the NFL said “it will review the decision [by Mazzant] in greater detail and discuss next steps with counsel, both in the district court and federal court of appeals.”
The NFL stiffened penalties in domestic cases three years after the league was sharply criticized for its handling of the domestic case involving former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.
Elliott rushed for 1,631 yards as a rookie to help the Cowboys to the best record in the NFC at 13-3. He was a full practice participant throughout training camp but played in just one preseason game, same as a year ago, when he missed significant time in camp because of a hamstring injury.
Chris Andrews, an oddsmaker from The South Point, told ESPN that the Cowboys’ odds to win Super Bowl LII moved from 15-1 to 12-1 after Friday’s ruling was announced. The odds for the Cowboys to win the NFC title moved from 8-1 to 6-1, Andrews said.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Ben Fawkes and The Associated Press contributed to this report.