What now for Ezekiel Elliott? Here are some answers

Jerry Jones has his star running back on the field once more. How long will it stay that way? Joe Robbins/Getty Images

A court ruled Friday that Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott can play Sunday, which is wild because a different court ruled Monday (and again Tuesday) that he could not play on Sunday.

If you're having trouble following all of this, we don't blame you. But it's our job to follow it, so we're here to help. Herewith, then, some of your (likely) questions and our educated answers:

So what happened? I thought this was settled?

Yeah, Monday night's ruling from Judge Katherine Failla in the Southern District Court gave off that vibe, didn't it? But as long as there's another appeals court, things like this are never over. And as Judge Failla said at the end of Monday's hearing, the loser was always going to go to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That's what Elliott and the NFL Players Association did. They argued Wednesday that the 2nd Circuit should hear their appeal of Failla's Monday ruling and grant an administrative stay that would hold off Elliott's six-game suspension while it heard that appeal.

On Friday, the 2nd Circuit announced that it would hear the appeal and would, in the meantime, grant the stay. The hearing can't be held until next week, so Elliott was allowed to return to practice Friday and will be allowed to play Sunday and be around the team at least until a three-judge 2nd Circuit panel hears the appeal case next week.

Does this mean Elliott plays the rest of the year?

Not necessarily. That will depend on what that three-judge panel rules next week. If that panel rules in Elliott's favor, he would receive an injunction that would hold off the suspension and allow him to play while the larger case is heard. If the panel rules against him and denies his request for injunction, he would have to serve the suspension while still pleading his case in court.

Wait. What do you mean, 'larger case'?

Yeah, this keeps getting missed. The case before the Southern District Court right now is a claim by Elliott and the NFLPA that the NFL acted unfairly in administering discipline to Elliott. That case was not resolved Monday, and likely won't be heard until after the NFL season. All the judge ordered Monday was that Elliott could not have an injunction and would have to serve the suspension while the case was pending. So the current fight is only over that -- the injunction and the implementation of the suspension. If Elliott and the union win next week, Elliott still could end up serving the suspension in 2018 if the courts rule that the league acted properly in imposing it.

So why does the NFL care whether he's suspended now or next year?

Good question, and one Judge Failla asked of NFL attorney Paul Clement on Monday night.

The league's answer is threefold: First, they don't want players and teams to be able to manipulate the discipline policy for their own convenience. For instance, if Elliott were to suffer an injury today that required him to miss the next six games, he could accept the suspension and serve it and be done with it with nothing but his pay lost. The league wants to be able to mete out discipline on its own terms and decide for itself when suspensions are served.

Secondly, Clement said, there are aspects of the discipline other than the suspension that are on hold here as well. For example, part of the discipline is a mandatory screening that could lead to counseling. If the league has reason to believe Elliott needs counseling (we're not saying he does, but hypothetically), then delaying that counseling could have a broad negative effect. Which gets to the third reason, which is that the league says it wants to make a strong stand on the issue of domestic violence, and playing fast and loose with the imposition of the suspension makes it more difficult to do that.

So, if Elliott loses next week and has to start serving the suspension, why would the court case continue?

If this were only about a six-game suspension, Elliott would drop the fight once there were no more legal avenues to pursue. But even if he is suspended, it's possible the larger case would proceed. Elliott has maintained his innocence and likely would want to fight to the end to have his name cleared, and the NFLPA would want to continue the fight to try to get a court to rule that the NFL is acting unfairly in administering its discipline policy. So the case could go on, and if hypothetically he were to win in the end, even after serving the suspension, he'd be entitled to six games' worth of back pay and possibly damages, as he'd argue harm to his reputation and lost endorsement opportunities. Again, all hypothetically.

OK, we're tired of this whole thing. What's most likely to happen?

It still seems as if the greater and more irreparable harm resides on Elliott's side, as the games missed would never come back and the average NFL career is still less than four years long. If that argument carries the day, then you'd think the three-judge panel in the 2nd Circuit would rule in his favor next week and grant the injunction while the case proceeds. If that happens, Elliott plays the rest of the year and argues his case again in the offseason.

History tells us the courts are extremely unlikely to overrule arbitration matters (especially those arising from collectively bargained agreements), which means he's likely to lose and would have to serve the suspension at the start of the 2018 season. That feels like the most likely outcome here, but as we've learned through all of these twists and turns, it's hard to predict what happens next.