By Libby Rozbruch
Libby Rozbruch is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania studying Psychology.
The ongoing legal battle between Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott and the National Football League (NFL) represents the NFL’s latest high-profile fight over its ability to punish its players for their off-field behavior. On Aug. 11, the NFL announced a six-game suspension for Ezekiel Elliott, which stemmed from a year-long investigation of the domestic violence allegations made against Elliott in July 2016.  Though Elliott was never criminally charged and has denied wrongdoing, his suspension is in line with the NFL’s domestic violence policy, which states that “violations of the Personal Conduct Policy regarding assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault that involve physical force will be subject to a suspension without pay of six games for a first offense, with consideration given to mitigating factors, as well as a longer suspension when circumstances warrant.”  Nonetheless, the NFL has faced intense scrutiny for seeming to frequently flout its own domestic violence policy and inconsistently punishing its players.  Because of this, Ezekiel Elliott and the NFL Player’s Association (NFLPA) have called into question the NFL’s neutral arbitration.
Immediately following the NFL’s announcement, Elliott appealed the suspension with the league. Elliott’s appeal hearing before Harold Henderson began Aug. 29 and lasted three days. Before any decision was made, the NFLPA and Elliott filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Texas to be handed down after the appeals process, seeking to invalidate any suspension upheld by Henderson. On Sept. 5, Henderson announced that Elliott’s suspension was in fact valid, deeming that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s decision was neither arbitrary nor made on unreasonable grounds. The NFL did; however, allow Elliott to play in the first game of the season due to the timing of the decision. 
Three days after Henderson upheld Elliott’s suspension, federal court Judge Amos Mazzant granted the NFLPA’s request for a preliminary injunction to block the six-game suspension while Elliott’s case is pending in court.  Mazzant upheld the NFLPA’s argument that the league investigation was marred by “fundamental unfairness” and further maintained that the case is not a matter of Elliott’s guilt or innocence but rather is a matter of whether the NFL’s disciplinary process has been applied appropriately.  The following Monday, the NFL filed a motion to appeal the inunction and threatened to appeal to a higher court if Mazzant did not issue an emergency stay on his own verdict by the end of the business day on Thursday, Sept. 14. Mazzant refused to succumb to the NFL’s ultimatum, and the NFL filed an emergency motion with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals the next day, seeking to stay Mazzant’s preliminary injunction. 
On Oct. 2, the NFL argued before a three-judge panel in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, asserting that Mazzant’s decision to delay Elliott’s six-game suspension challenged the league’s ability to enforce the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and thus did “irreplaceable harm” to the NFL.  The NFLPA countered this by questioning the NFL’s decision to let Elliott play in Week 1 of the season given the basis for the emergency motion was that the injunction caused “irreplaceable harm” to the league.  Though the NFLPA further asserted that the NFL and its appointed arbitrator were at fault for violating the CBA procedures due to the way in which Elliott’s investigation had been conducted, the three-judge panel ruled 2-1 in favor of the NFL and reinstated the suspension.
Consistent with the case’s on-again, off-again pattern, the NFLPA filed a motion for a temporary restraining order (TRO) with the New York Southern District Court on Oct. 16. The following day, a New York judge granted the TRO, which is expected to remain in place until Oct. 30 when U.S. District Judge Katherine Polk Failla returns from vacation. The judge reasoned that “without a TRO, Elliott stands to suffer significant harm to his career and reputation, that cannot be monetarily compensated.”  The NFL is currently trying to move the Oct. 30 hearing up to prevent Elliott from playing in the division rivalry Cowboys vs. Washington game on Oct. 29.
This convoluted case that has left Ezekiel Elliott suspended to eligible to suspended to eligible again will likely have huge implications for both the league’s punishment policy and for Collective Bargaining Agreements going forward. It is important to note that this case is not meant to represent whether Elliott is guilty of the domestic violence allegations made against him. Rather, it perhaps epitomizes the NFL’s domestic violence policy – one that is marred by an investigative process that seems to regularly disregard legal norms.  Over the past three years, the NFL has faced major criticism for its handling of domestic violence cases involving many prominent players such as Ray Rice, Ray McDonald, Greg Hardy, Josh Brown, and Ra’Shede Hageman. 
In the case of Ray McDonald, the San Francisco 49ers’ starting defensive end had been arrested three days after the NFL implemented its new domestic violence policy, which states that a player did not need to be criminally charged in order to be suspended. The NFL, however, never announced any suspension of McDonald for domestic violence. The league defended itself saying that the investigation was inconclusive, as the victim in the case was reluctant and not able to fully cooperate. This is just one example of the NFL claiming to have high standards but overlooking these standards when it comes down to the “complex realities” of the situation. 
After three years of continuous scrutiny for its handling of domestic violence cases, the NFL handed out one of its harshest penalties to Elliott, one of the league’s most high-profile players. This has lead many people to question the credibility of the NFL’s investigative process, because it does not seem unreasonable that the NFL’s unwavering stance in the Elliott case is related to the fact that the league’s punishment policy is currently under the microscope.
 Barca, Jerry. “Ezekiel Elliott Suspended for Six Games.” Forbes. August 11, 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jerrybarca/2017/08/11/ezekiel-elliott-suspended-six-games/#29caecbf5448.
 Pilon, Mary. “Inside the NFL’s Domestic Violence Punishment Problem.” Bleacher Report Magazine. January 31, 2017. http://mag.bleacherreport.com/nfl-domestic-violence-policy-suspensions/.
 Edelman, Marc. “Ezekiel Elliott Lawsuit Marks the Latest Challenge to NFL ‘Neutral’ Arbitration.” Forbes. September 5, 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/marcedelman/2017/09/05/ezekiel-elliott-lawsuit-marks-the-latest-challenge-to-nfl-neutral-arbitration/#130e66f3a5ed.
 Thomas, Jeanna. “Ezekiel Elliott’s Suspension and Appeal, Explained.” SB Nation. October 17, 2017. https://www.sbnation.com/2017/8/18/16141526/ezekiel-elliott-suspension-appeal-explained-nfl-domestic-violence.
 Dubin, Jared. “NFL Reportedly Wants to Move Ezekiel Elliott’s Next Hearing Up by Three Days.” CBS Sports. October 22, 2017. https://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/nfl-reportedly-wants-to-move-ezekiel-elliotts-next-hearing-up-by-three-days/.
 Edelman, Marc. “NFL Domestic Violence Policy is Marred by an Investigative Process That Defies Norms.” Forbes. September 19, 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/marcedelman/2017/09/19/nfl-domestic-violence-policy-is-marred-by-iconoclastic-process-that-defies-judicial-norms/#4ce85a853f06.
Photo Credit: Flickr User/Keith Allison
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