Vacationing judge may have saved Ezekiel Elliott but ‘fundamental fairness’ still in play

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

NEW YORK – Welcome to the latest installment of “What Does This Ezekiel Elliott Court Decision Mean?” This week, the Dallas Cowboys running back gets to stay on the field by virtue of a vacationing judge.

So on and on we go.

While the legal debates and parsing of the latest court decision play out, the reality is that not all that much has changed for Elliott. He is still expected to play out his case in the less-than-ideal New York federal court system. And he still must overcome the same collective bargaining disciplinary minutia that was so daunting a week ago.

The only difference this time around is the person who weighs his fate – U.S. District Court Judge Katherine Polk Failla – was on vacation and unable to rule on the enforcement of the league’s suspension this week. U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty heard arguments for the issuance of a temporary restraining order on Tuesday and could have chosen to rule in Failla’s place, but instead delayed the final ruling until Failla could return and level the decision herself.

Ezekiel Elliott is scheduled to return to practice with the Cowboys on Wednesday. (AP)

Up for legal debate now is whether Elliott’s chances at a victory have improved. That’s in large part due to Crotty’s decision to delay the suspension – which included an opinion that a core issue remains unresolved in the court system: whether NFL players have the right to a standard of “fundamental fairness” in the disciplinary process laid out in the collective bargaining agreement.

The league has argued that it has the power to levy decisions in the process and manner the commissioner deems fit. Elliott’s lawyers – like Tom Brady’s legal team in his case – have argued that isn’t the case. Crotty has suggested that the question of “fundamental fairness” as a standard in the league’s arbitration process is still unresolved.

It might be a sliver of hope for Elliott in his case in this way: If Judge Failla returns and also rules that issues of “fundamental fairness” are in play for arbitration decisions, it’s likely Elliott’s suspension will be set aside and his case will play out in federal court. But Failla doesn’t have to agree with Crotty’s opinion.

If Failla doesn’t see the “fundamental fairness” question as being any different than the one Brady lost previously (and which set precedent), Elliott’s lawsuit against the NFL would likely be over.

Failla could return from vacation to rule in the case as early as next week, but no later than Oct. 30.

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