The Ezekiel Elliott saga has become one of the biggest headlines in a tumultuous 2017 season for the National Football League.
Despite beginning his six-game suspension on Nov. 12 for domestic violence accusations, the running back for the Cowboys was originally punished back on Aug. 11. Five days later, he filed an appeal that was denied by the league office, which is where things start to get interesting.
Elliott was able to play because the NFL Players Association was successfully granted a preliminary injunction by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. This put his suspension on hold until the injunction reached the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Oct. 12. The court ruled 2-1 in favor of the NFL to reinstate Elliott’s suspension after he had already played in the first five games of the season for the Cowboys.
Just five days later – during the Cowboys’ bye week – a U.S. District judge in the Southern District of New York granted Elliott a temporary restraining order. This allowed Elliott to remain eligible to play for a 14-day period or until a hearing for another preliminary injunction could be held before Judge Katherine P. Failia, according to NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport.
Failia denied the NFLPA’s request for a preliminary injunction on Oct. 30, once again forcing Elliott to serve his suspension. However, Elliott was granted an administrative stay by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Nov. 3 until it further reviewed the case, letting him rejoin the Cowboys once again.
Finally, on Nov. 9 the federal court denied a final appeal for an injunction, officially enforcing Elliott’s six-game suspension. It took three delays and nearly three months, but Elliott eventually served the first game of his suspension in the Nov. 12 game against the Atlanta Falcons, in which the Cowboys lost 27-7.
Lost in the chaos is perhaps the most important part of this story: why Elliott was suspended for six games in the first place.
After his suspension was reinstated for the second time, the focus of the story began to shift away from the basis of the suspension. Fans and analysts were no longer concerned with what Elliott was suspended for, but they were concerned with whether or not he would play next week.
To be fair, it is understandable to be distracted by this. To call the suspension of Elliott a media circus would be an understatement. The NFL has never experienced a disciplinary cycle quite like this and like all bizarre events in sports, it deserves to be covered.
However, the constant back and forth between the NFLPA and the federal courts cheapens the initial gravity of Elliott’s situation. Elliott was accused of domestic abuse, and while he never faced criminal charges, the NFL had to conduct a year-long investigation before determining whether or not he should face discipline. There is no longer a conversation over whether or not Elliott committed a crime and what the legal implications should be if he did, but the discussion is now about if he will suit up for the Cowboys on any given Sunday. Whether or not his suspension was warranted has become irrelevant.
There is a dangerous precedent set for both the players and the NFL following the Elliott suspension. On one hand, players that violate the personal conduct policy without an arrest now have a high chance of circumventing their suspensions for a decent amount of time. Elliott was able to work through legal loopholes and play the first half of the season for the Cowboys.
On the other hand, this case shows that the NFL can still impose a suspension on a player even if the police clear them of any criminal charges. Elliott was never arrested, but on three separate occasions a federal court ruled that the NFL’s suspension was warranted. This will likely lead to a significant change in the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement. The NFLPA fought hard to keep Elliott on the field, and in future situations like this one, the organization needs stronger language to fight any suspension handed down by league officials.
Matt Lapolla is a broadcasting major from Union, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MatthewLapolla.