It was a long weekend, so there was plenty of time for sleuths to pore through the thousands of pages of exhibits that accompanied Ezekiel Elliott and the NFL Players Associations' request for a temporary restraining order against the league. While Elliott's lawsuit is intended to cut off the six-game suspension that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell handed him, the court record contains far more than the details of the league's investigation into domestic violence allegations made against Elliott by ex-girlfriend Tiffany Thompson.
It contains plenty of embarrassing information about Elliott, to be sure, but it also raises questions about the fairness of the league disciplinary process. As Elliott and the Cowboys get set for the biggest afternoon of their offseason Tuesday, let's take a look at where things stand with Elliott's appeal and the legal action that's sure to follow.
The first shoe to drop
The big thing to watch for Tuesday morning and into the early afternoon is a potential decision from Harold Henderson regarding Elliott's appeal of his suspension. Goodell appointed Henderson, a former NFL executive, as his proxy for Elliott's appeal hearing, which ran Tuesday through Thursday last week. When Henderson makes his decision, he will uphold, reduce or vacate Elliott's six-game penalty. While he's most likely to uphold the suspension, testimony from the appeal hearing has called the integrity of the league's investigation into question.
Kia Roberts, the league's co-lead investigator in the case, said she did not believe Elliott should have been suspended because she was unsure of Thompson's credibility after a series of inconsistencies in her statements. Roberts' conclusion was not included in the final investigative report given to Goodell, nor was she allowed to take part in a meeting between her fellow lead investigator, Lisa Friel, and Goodell.
Additionally, a medical expert called by Elliott's defense said it was impossible to tell from photos taken by Thompson — the NFL's key evidence against Elliott — when bruises on her body might have been caused. One of the doctors the league consulted about the photos was not available for testimony at the appeal hearing, apparently because of illness.
“We have reason to believe that that is false,” Elliott’s lawyer Jeffrey Kessler told Henderson, according to a transcript of the hearing. “So I’m going to submit to you the declaration of a private investigator, Mr. Scott Whitlock. Mr. Whitlock will, as you’ll see in this declaration, testify that, in fact, Dr. Thanning was in her [residence] all day yesterday . . . and he went to her door and she answered and that he stayed there all day really into the night and she never left the residence.”
Dr. Lorraine Giordano, the other doctor on whom the league relied to determine the provenance of Thompson's bruises, said at the hearing that she had “had no reason to disagree” with defense expert testimony that it is impossible to tell the age of a bruise from a photograph.
According to Elliott's testimony, Thompson frequently suffered bruises while working as a bottle-service waitress or during the couple's frequent bouts of rough sex. Witnesses also saw Thompson involved in a fistfight with another woman the night before she called Columbus, Ohio, police to report that Elliott abused her.
If Henderson fails to issue his decision by Tuesday afternoon, Elliott will be eligible to play in the Cowboys' week one contest against the Giants. That might not be the best outcome for the running back, however. With no decision from Thompson, it's possible that Sherman-based U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant III will dismiss Elliott's restraining order request for lack of standing because no suspension is in effect. If Henderson acts — and doesn't vacate the suspension — Mazzant is more likely to rule on the restraining order, setting the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas as the first court of record in the case. The NFL would rather any court case be in the Southern District of New York, a court that proved favorable to the league during its fight against Tom Brady in 2015 and 2016.
The evidence submitted to Mazzant's court by Kessler and the rest of his defense team shows that Elliott has no qualms about putting everything he has out there in an attempt to avoid the suspension.
Elliott used recreational drugs at Ohio State. After admitting that he still likes to party and get drunk, Elliott said under oath that he enjoyed using drugs while he was in college. There is some evidence that Elliott's drug use may have extended past his time at Ohio State. Text messages between him and Thompson from 2016 show Elliott's worries about an upcoming drug test; Elliott said he planned to go to the sauna in an attempt to sweat marijuana out of his system.
Thompson may have slept with Elliott's teammate, Lucky Whitehead. Elliott told Henderson that he believes Thompson had sex with the former Cowboys wide receiver to get back at Elliott for breaking up with her.
"So, like I mentioned before, when Tiffany saw me doing well or just doing well without her, she did not like that and she would go through any measure to kind of ruin my moment or ruin what's going on, and so particularly this moment was — after we had a big win [versus] the Steelers, and I had a very good game, and while I'm boarding the plane from Pittsburgh to Dallas, I received like 15 texts from an unknown number, and the texts were screen shots of text messages between Tiffany and one of my current teammates that play with me for the Cowboys. And then there was a picture of a hotel reservation which had her name and also his name on it. Basically, her telling me that she slept with one of my teammates the previous week while we were in Cleveland," Elliott said.
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In an earlier interview, Thompson told Roberts, one of the NFL's lead investigators, how she and Whitehead met. "He and I started talking over social media," Thompson said. "We weren't really dating. Ezekiel found out, and I blocked Lucky from my phone."
Thompson aborted a child that would've been Elliott's. In separate interviews, both Elliott and Thompson confirmed that she'd had an abortion in Chicago in April 2016, around the time of the NFL draft in the city. Elliott said he believes Thompson got pregnant on purpose, in an attempt to keep him in a relationship he did not want to be in.
What's likely to happen
One way or another, it appears likely that Elliott will play in the Cowboys' season opener against the Giants. It would serve the league's best interest for Henderson to act after Tuesday afternoon in order to lessen the legal urgency of Elliott's lawsuit. If Elliott secures the temporary restraining order, the Cowboys could know as early as Tuesday that he will be available for the entire season, as it is unlikely the case will be resolved before the Super Bowl on Feb. 4.
In order to get his restraining order, Elliott needs to prove there is a substantial likelihood he will win the case when it is fully decided and that he will suffer irreparable injury if the restraining order is not granted. The second piece becomes hard to argue if Henderson hasn't ruled by 5 p.m., the time for which the first hearing in the case is scheduled. In its response to Elliott's suit, the league argues that the case should be dismissed and then refiled when Henderson makes his decision. Forcing Elliott and the players association to refile increases the likelihood that the league could beat them to court and secure a favorable venue.