The NFL Players Association preemptively sued the NFL in federal court late Thursday, seeking to vacate the NFL's suspension of Ezekiel Elliott if it's upheld by Harold Henderson, the former league executive appointed to hear Elliott's suspension appeal.
Elliott's suspension is based on a series of domestic violence allegations made by his ex-girlfriend Tiffany Thompson. While the Columbus, Ohio, City Attorney's Office declined to press charges against Elliott, citing conflicting evidence and witness statements, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell concluded that three of the five allegations made by Thompson were credible and suspended the running back. [content-1]
According to the lawsuit, "Elliott and the Union were subjected to an arbitration process in which, among other things, there was a League-orchestrated conspiracy by senior NFL executives, including NFL Senior Vice President and Special Counsel for Investigations Lisa Friel, to hide critical information, which would completely exonerate Elliott."
The decision by the players association and Elliott to take the league to court isn't unexpected. Neither is the timing. After learning from his unsuccessful defense of Tom Brady in the "Deflategate" case, the association's appeal attorney, Jeffrey Kessler, filed early in order to secure a venue friendlier to Elliott — the Eastern District of Texas, which includes Collin County, the home of the Cowboys' Frisco training facility — than the league's preferred court in the Southern District of New York. [content-2]
The big news from the suit is a set of revelations about the NFL's investigation of Elliott and his appeals hearing that cast serious doubt on the fairness of the league's disciplinary process regarding the Cowboys second-year star. According to the filing, Kia Roberts, the NFL co-lead investigator in the case, testified at Elliott's appeal hearing that she did not believe Elliott should be suspended because of her concerns about Thompson's credibility.
Roberts' conclusions were not included in the league's final investigative report of the incident, nor was she invited to a meeting with the four outside advisors selected by the commissioner to help him determine Elliott's punishment. Both decisions, which Friel made in consultation with NFL counsel, irreparably biased the league's disciplinary process against Elliott, according to the suit.
"The conspiracy to conceal Roberts’s conclusions as the co-lead investigator were especially harmful because she was the only one of the co-lead investigators to interview Thompson — and she did so six times," the suit said.[content-3]
In addition to Roberts' testimony, Elliott and the players association point to numerous procedural issues that undermine the essential fairness of the NFL's appeals process. Elliott and his lawyers could not question Thompson because the NFL refused to ask her to appear at the hearing, nor were they allowed to call Goodell as witness to find out what he knew about Roberts' investigative findings.
NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said Friday morning that Elliott and the association are "trying to create a grand conspiracy story where none exists." It's not normal procedure, Lockhart told NFL.com, for league investigators to recommend specific punishments.
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"No. In fact, at Kia's level, she wouldn't, and she didn't. She made her point of view on particularly the credibility issues known in the report; they are reflected in the report. It is the commissioner and the commissioner's sole role to decide on discipline," Lockhart said.
The players association's lawsuit asks for a temporary restraining order against any potential suspension to "prevent severe and irreparable harm to Elliott, his reputation, and his career" that would happen were the suspension to be upheld and enforced.
Henderson is expected to make his decision on Elliott's appeal sometime before Tuesday afternoon, so the Cowboys will know Elliott's status as they begin preparations for their season opener against the New York Giants on Sept. 10. If a temporary restraining order is issued in the case, Elliott will be eligible to play as the case winds its way through the federal court system. That process could last well into 2018, allowing Elliott to participate in the entire 2017 season.