Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliot will appeal his six-game suspension. When he does, the NFL’s next step becomes a critical one.
Commissioner Roger Goodell will have to decide whether to personally handle the appeal, whether to designate it to a league employee, whether to assign it to an “independent” person deemed friendly to league interests, or whether to hand the baton to a truly independent arbitrator.
That decision will have a significant impact on the outcome. If the Commissioner handles the appeal of the decision the Commissioner already made, it’s hard to imagine him changing his mind. Indeed, in recent years the language characterizing the appeal process has subtly morphed from ensuring the initial decision was correct to giving the player one last chance to introduce new evidence that would possibly change Goodell’s mind.
That’s not how appeals should work. And the fact that the Commissioner already made the decision to suspend Elliott six games could make it easier for Elliott, the NFL Players Association, and/or Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to argue that Goodell should designate a truly independent arbitrator to take a fresh look at the case and to determine whether Goodell got it right.
If Jones is truly furious over the suspension, he could best channel that fury by pressuring Goodell to let someone who hasn’t already formed an opinion on the case — and someone who will feel no express or implied compulsion to rubber stamp the Commissioner’s decision — to handle the appeal. And there’s good reason for Jones to push for true independence; the last two times Goodell delegated an appeal to a truly independent arbitrator (Ray Rice in 2014, Saints bounty scandal in 2012), the arbitrator scrapped the suspensions.
However it plays out, the identification of the arbitrator isn’t just the next step in the process, but arguably the most important.