Court clears way for NFL's 6-game suspension of Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott
FRISCO, Texas -- A federal appeals court cleared the way Thursday for the NFL to impose a six-game suspension on Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott over domestic violence allegations, siding with the league in the latest high-profile fight over its ability to punish players for off-field behavior.
In a 2-1 decision, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel in New Orleans granted the league's emergency request to set aside an injunction and ordered a district court in Texas to dismiss Elliott's case.
The NFL announced that the suspension was effective immediately, though further appeals were possible and the Cowboys are not playing this weekend.
"We are currently exploring all of our legal options and will make a decision as to what is the best course of action in the next few days,'' Elliott's attorney Frank Salzano said.
The Cowboys don't play again until Sunday, Oct. 22, at San Francisco. If Elliott's legal team can't put the suspension on hold again, he would miss the 49ers game, plus games against the Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Chargers. He would be eligible to play again on Nov. 30 at home against Washington, a Thursday night game the week after Thanksgiving.
Elliott played the first five games while the case was in the courts. He rushed for 393 yards on 105 carries, an average of just 3.7 yards. He led the NFL with 1,631 rushing yards last season as a rookie.
A federal judge in Texas issued the injunction blocking the suspension last month, agreeing with NFL Players Association attorneys who argued that the investigation of the allegations in Ohio and a subsequent appeal were unfair to Elliott, one of the league's standout running backs.
The NFL countered that it followed procedures under the league's labor deal and that the union improperly filed a lawsuit before the appeals process was complete.
"The NFLPA is reviewing the decision and considering all options,'' the players' association said in a statement Thursday. "The appellate court decision focuses on the jurisdictional issues. The failures of due process by the NFL articulated in the District Court's decision were not addressed.''
The most likely destination for further legal challenges from players' union attorneys representing Elliott is with the Southern District of New York. The NFL filed in that federal court after Elliott's appeal through the league was denied by arbitrator Harold Henderson last month. But a source told ESPN's Adam Schefter that Elliott's lawyers still have the option of refiling in Dallas or fighting the suspension in New York, a decision they are discussing now.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Elliott in August after the league concluded -- following a yearlong investigation -- that he had several physical confrontations in the summer of 2016 with Tiffany Thompson, his girlfriend at the time. Prosecutors in Columbus, Ohio, decided not to pursue the case, citing conflicting evidence.
Elliott's legal team filed the lawsuit on his behalf in the Eastern District of Texas before Henderson had rejected the appeal. The 5th Circuit agreed with the NFL's claim that the filing was premature.
"The procedures provided for in the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFLPA were not exhausted,'' Judges Jennifer Elrod and Edward Prado wrote for the majority. "The parties contracted to have an arbitrator make a final decision. That decision had not yet been issued.''
In dissent, Judge James Graves disagreed that the suit was filed prematurely. Graves noted the union's argument that the league had violated the collective bargaining agreement because key information had been withheld from Goodell's and Elliott's representatives before the suspension was ordered and the arbitrator's decision was based on incomplete information. The suit was properly filed in the district court because the arbitration process called for in the labor deal was not properly followed, Graves argued.
The NFL already had agreed to let Elliott play in the opener before his request for an injunction was granted by U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant in Sherman, north of Dallas. Henderson ruled against Elliott the same day Mazzant heard arguments over the injunction.
The NFL filed in the New York court because it is the home of league headquarters and was the site of Elliott's appeal hearing with Henderson.
In the Elliott case, league attorneys wrote to the 5th Circuit that the union's lawsuit had resulted in "hopelessly doomed proceedings'' that shouldn't continue.
The NFLPA has argued that Mazzant had jurisdiction because Elliott exhausted his appeal before filing the lawsuit when Henderson rejected requests for the testimony of Goodell and Thompson. Elliott's attorneys also say the NFL violated the labor deal by withholding key information from Goodell's and Elliott's representatives.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.