Ezekiel Elliott would have played his first game on Sunday had he not sought to block his six-game ban through the federal courts.
Instead, he’s all but certain to miss the Dallas Cowboys’ next six games -- three against NFC East foes -- after U.S. District Judge Katherine Polk Failla denied Elliott an injunction on Monday. While the ruling doesn’t go into effect until Tuesday night, Elliott’s chances of staving off the suspension related to domestic violence allegations appear slim.
Failla’s 24-page ruling could also be interpreted another way: The federal courts may not be the place to settle disputes spelled out in the personal conduct policy portion of the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association.
“Having negotiated with the NFLPA over the terms of a particular CBA, the NFL has an interest in obtaining the benefits of its bargain — an interest that might well be eroded if courts such as this one were permitted to micromanage the disciplinary decisions of the Commissioner,” Failla wrote.
Failla cited precedent set in New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s Deflategate case multiple times in her ruling. While Brady was able to avoid serving his four-game ban for the entire 2015 season, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals -- where Elliott could seek relief next -- eventually ruled that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell acted within his authority to suspend Brady.
“While reviewing an arbitration award that affirmed the suspension of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, (the 2nd Circuit) rejected arguments similar to those here and ordered confirmation of the arbitration award,” Failla wrote.
It took two months, dozens of filings and multiple hearings to get to this point in the Elliott case, which started at a federal court in Texas. That doesn’t come cheap for either side.
The NFLPA spent $6.6 million on outside legal fees in addition to the salaries of in-house lawyers (at least $1.64 million) in 2015, according to the most recent IRS tax form made available publicly. While the tax form does not detail how that money was spent, 2015 was the same year the NFLPA went to court for Brady and then-Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.
And barring the 2nd Circuit overturning Failla’s decision, Eliott has been another costly legal endeavor that, so far, has upheld Goodell’s authority.
The likely route toward altering that authority may not come until the current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2020 season. Expect the personal conduct policy to rank at the top of the NFLPA’s concerns as the union’s executive director, DeMaurice Smith, all but predicted another work stoppage.
"I think that the likelihood of either a strike or a lockout in ’21 is almost a virtual certainty," Smith told Sports Illustrated in August. “We have a deal, where if it doesn’t get fixed, we are little ‘a’ Armageddon.”