Not much has been said publicly, or privately, about the Ezekiel Elliott case in the past week. Next week, plenty will be said at the formal appeal hearing. After a ruling is issued, that’s when things could get very interesting.
In recent years, players facing suspensions have repeatedly used the court system to delay the punishment, even if each of them have ended up serving the suspensions after losing in court. Elliott could indeed do the same thing if/when non-neutral neutral arbitrator Harold Henderson rubber stamps the suspension.
Regardless of which side initiates the litigation (in Tom Brady‘s case, it was the league that filed suit), Elliott can seek a preliminary injunction, barring the league from suspending him until the case ends. It’s not an easy move, but NFL players (starting with the StarCaps case driven by former Vikings defensive tackles Pat and Kevin Williams) have had success in this regard.
The key factor is what’s known as “irreparable harm.” If Elliott ultimately wins in court, he’d get the money he would have made in the games he missed, but there would be no way he could go back and play those games. In other words, there’s no way to cure the practical damage to Elliott’s career by writing Elliott a check, if it turns out that the NFL got it wrong.
Another important factor that applies in cases of this nature hinges on the likelihood of success in court. With a stream of players trying to overturn suspensions in court and not succeeding, at some point the NFL could point to the inability of players to win as proof that this one won’t, either.
Those factors (along with consideration of the relative hardships to the parties and the public interest) are considered in a loose, subjective way. In cases like this, the irreparable nature of the harm becomes glaring; if Elliott wins there’s no way Elliott can truly have the damage undone.
Given that he’s starting his second NFL season and presumably will play in 2018 and beyond, what’s the harm to the NFL in pushing the suspension back until Elliott has a fair chance to have his day in court? Even if he’s likely to lose, the slim chance of winning makes delaying the suspension a sensible outcome — which would make Elliott available perhaps for the entire season.