SHERMAN, Texas (CN) – Dallas Cowboys star running back Ezekiel Elliott should enjoy this weekend’s primetime opening game, thanks to a federal judge blocking his six-game suspension Friday based on the finding that his arbitration hearing was unfair.
Ruling that Elliott did not receive a “fundamentally fair hearing” when an arbitrator refused to allow him to cross-examine his accuser or call National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell to testify during his appeal, U.S. District Judge Amos L. Mazzant granted the NFL Players Association’s motion for a preliminary injunction.
The Dallas Cowboys’ top running back, who led the NFL in rushing yards last year in his rookie season, will now likely play the entire regular season as the case moves forward, beginning with Sunday night’s home opener against the New York Giants.
The ruling comes three days after league-appointed arbitrator Harold Henderson rejected Elliott’s administrative appeal of the suspension and upheld the punishment.
The players’ union sued the NFL on Aug. 31 on Elliott’s behalf in Sherman, Texas federal court, claiming Goodell wrongfully suspended him last month over allegations of domestic violence by Tiffany Thompson, of Columbus, Ohio, last year.
Elliott has steadfastly denied the allegations and was never criminally charged for the alleged assault. Goddell banned him anyway for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, citing “substantial and persuasive evidence” that Elliott assaulted her.
The NFLPA claims league officials conspired to hide information that exonerates Elliott and its lead investigator, Kia Roberts, purportedly recommended no discipline be imposed on Elliott after she interviewed Thompson and concluded she “was not credible” and that there was “insufficient corroborating evidence of her incredible allegations.”
The NFL fired back at the lawsuit in Manhattan federal court on Sept. 5, claiming the league’s disciplinary body has already rejected Elliott’s appeal under the parties’ collective-bargaining agreement.
In a 22-page order released late Friday afternoon, Judge Mazzant agreed with the union that arbitrator Henderson breached the collective-bargaining agreement when he denied Elliott the ability to cross-examine Thompson and call Goodell as a witness, each of which “was of utmost importance and extremely relevant” to the appeal.
The judge also disagreed with the NFL’s claim that the union lacked standing to sue before Henderson issued his ruling, reminding the league that the arbitrator had already denied the union’s requests to cross-examine Thompson and call Goodell.
“Based on these denials and the fact that an arbitrator gives deference to the Commissioner’s decisions, it is evident that Henderson will likely affirm, in some manner, the Commissioner’s suspensions,” the order states. “As such, ‘there is a substantial risk that the harm will occur.’”
Mazzant said the NFL consistently acted to “suppress” investigator Roberts’ conclusion of no punishment and that her recommendations were excluded from the league’s report on the case and also “kept from Commissioner Goodell and his advisors.”
He said the league responded to the union’s request to compel her testimony as being unnecessary, consistent with another investigation and cumulative.
“Luckily the NFLPA found the fairness needle in the unfairness haystack and Henderson ordered Roberts to testify,” Mazzant wrote. “The arbitration record shows that Roberts’ testimony was everything but unnecessary, consistent and cumulative.”
The NFLPA quickly applauded the judge’s ruling and criticized Goodell’s punishment of players under the personal conduct policy.
“Commissioner discipline will continue to be a distraction from our game for one reason: because NFL owners have refused to collectively bargain a fair and transparent process that exists in other sports,” the union said in a statement. “This ‘imposed’ system remains problematic for players and the game, but as the honest and honorable testimony of a few NFL employees recently revealed, it also demonstrates the continued lack of integrity within their own league office.”
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy reiterated the league’s belief that the proceedings were fair to Elliott.
“We strongly believe that the investigation and evidence supported the Commissioner’s decision and that the process was meticulous and fair throughout,” he said in a statement. “We will review the decision in greater detail and discuss next steps with counsel, both in the district court and federal court of appeals.”
Elliott’s personal attorneys said they agree with the judge’s conclusion that he did not receive a “fundamentally fair” arbitration hearing.
“We are very pleased that Mr. Elliott will finally be given the opportunity to have an impartial decision-maker carefully examine the NFL’s misconduct,” they said in a statement. “This is just the beginning of the unveiling of the NFL’s mishandling as it relates to Mr. Elliott’s suspension.”