The NFL filed a motion for an emergency stay with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday in the Ezekiel Elliott case that, if granted, would potentially allow the league to enforce its suspension of the Dallas Cowboys running back in the weeks ahead.
The league is asking the 5th Circuit for a stay on a preliminary injunction issued last week by U.S. District Court Judge Amos Mazzant III that likely has put Elliott's suspension on hold for the remainder of the season. Although there is no firm timeline for a decision, the 5th Circuit could make a ruling in a matter of days -- perhaps even soon enough to bar Elliott from playing in Week 3 if it sides with the NFL.
In its motion, the NFL asks for a ruling from the court by no later than Sept. 26 -- the Tuesday of Week 4 before the Cowboys start practice in preparation for that week's game against the Los Angeles Rams. The league believes Mazzant defied precedent by granting the NFL Players Association and Elliott an injunction after finding Elliott didn't recieve a fair appeal in front of league-appointed arbitrator Harold Henderson last month.
"The court not only entertained a blatantly prematurely challenge, but then found a likelihood of success in a procedural challenge to the arbitrator's decision," the NFL's motion states. "That precedent-defying decision will not stand, and nothing in the stay equities favors delaying an arbitrator's decision that will almost certainly be vindicated at the end of the proceedings. The misguided order ... should be stayed and then promptly reversed."
The NFLPA filed a response to the NFL's motion Saturday, stating the league "faces no irreparable harm" with Elliott playing during the pending appeal.
"Elliott stands to lose nearly half a season in a career that is notoriously short and precarious, and competitive opportunities are irretrievable once lost," the union response states.
It'll be difficult for the league to obtain an emergency stay from the 5th Circuit, according to Gabe Feldman, director of the Tulane Sports Law Program.
"The NFL will have to convince the 5th Circuit that it has a likelihood of success on the merits and that it will suffer irreparable harm if the stay is not granted," Feldman said. "It may be difficult for the league to convince the court that it will suffer irreparable harm given that Elliott could serve his suspension later in the season or next season once a full appeal on the merits has been decided. If the court does grant the stay, however, it is an extremely strong indicator that it will ultimately rule in the NFL's favor and overturn the injunction."
Mazzant is reviewing the league's request for an emergency stay of the injunction he issued last week as he continues to examine the merits of the NFLPA's petition to have Elliott's six-game suspension dissolved. The stay requests are part of an attempt by the NFL to enforce the suspension during this season and confirm NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's authority to issue punishment based on "conduct detrimental" to the league as mandated in Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement.
In his decision last week to grant a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order, Mazzant agreed with the NFLPA that Elliott didn't receive a fair suspension appeal hearing.
"The question before the court is merely whether Elliott received a fundamentally fair hearing before the arbitrator," Mazzant wrote. "The answer is he did not. The court finds, based upon the injunction standard, that Elliott was denied a fundamentally fair hearing by Henderson's refusal to allow [former girlfriend Tiffany] Thompson and Goodell to testify at the arbitration hearing. Their absence ... effectively deprived Elliott of any chance to have a fundamentally fair hearing."
The NFL argues Mazzant's ruling interferes with a legally-binding labor deal that has been approved by the league and the union. It's the same argument the NFL deployed in ultimately successful appeals against Tom Brady during Deflategate and Adrian Peterson after he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor reckless assault.
"Petitioner should not be allowed to evade its CBA obligations by delaying suspensions indefinitely through the courts," NFL attorneys wrote in a filing Wednesday in support of an injunction stay.
"This is part of the ongoing fight between the players association and the league over the power of the commissioner," Feldman said. "We have seen the NFL go to great lengths in court to affirm and strengthen and maintain they believe in what they collectively bargained for. And we've seen the players association fight and say that the commissioner has overreached and they want to protect the rights of the players ... [The NFL] doesn't want precedent out there that says a court can interfere with the commissioner's decision or with an arbitrator's decision."
Goodell suspended Elliott six games after a year-long investigation into domestic violence accusations made by Thompson. The league found he violated the league's conduct policy, which mandates a six-game suspension for first-time domestic violence violations.
Elliott, 22, was never charged and has denied wrongdoing.
The NFLPA is challenging the process the NFL undertook to suspend Elliott -- not the factual conclusions from its investigation, Feldman said. Among other things, the petition alleges the league deliberately hid critical information from Elliott and the union that could have been used to exonerate him. It claims the NFL's lead investigator on the case, Kia Roberts, found Thompson wasn't credible and there was insufficient corroborating evidence to support any discipline.
"They're trying to create a grand conspiracy story where none exists," league spokesman Joe Lockhart told NFL Network's Tom Pelissero after the petition was filed.
When asked about what has been the toughest aspect of the case for him, Elliott said Sunday: "Just kind of your name getting dragged through the mud. It's been 14 months. Just kind of being associated with that, that's tough."
"I've kind of stopped worrying about it because it's not in my hands."