Here's how Ezekiel Elliott's high-stakes court hearing could play out

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

If Ezekiel Elliott‘s legal team hopes to stave off his six-game suspension, Monday’s hearing by a federal appeals court in New Orleans may mean everything in that fight. And the fact that the hearing is taking place is already ominous news for the Dallas Cowboys running back.

The critical turn comes down to this: When Elliott’s team filed his federal case against the NFL in the U.S. District Court in Texas, did that court have the jurisdiction to take it on? The NFL and Elliott’s team will argue that point before the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Monday to determine the answer. Of all the legal wrangling that has occurred in this fight, this is the one that is expected to answer whether he’s expected to play out the 2017 season.

But there is a rub that raised the eyebrows of Elliott’s legal team: The 5th Circuit Court often makes its determinations without needing to hear lawyers argue it out before the three-judge appeals panel. Elliott’s best sign would have been the court making a determination on the merits of the filings, without the need for additional argument. But when the court seeks oral arguments, it typically means the appealing party – in this case, the NFL – has presented something compelling enough for further consideration.

Ezekiel Elliott is fighting to keep his case against the NFL in federal court. (AP)

Reading the landscape, the 5th Circuit Court appears to be signaling that the NFL has a shot to wipe Elliott’s fight in Texas off the map. That would eliminate his best shot at any type of legal victory. After speaking to multiple sources close to the running back, it’s clear that Elliott’s legal team knows this, the NFL Players Association knows it, and the Cowboys know it. And all of those parties expect the NFL to throw everything it has into oral arguments, grasping for anything to undercut Elliott’s case.

Framing it all up, here’s where things stand in the simplest terms:

Why is Elliott allowed to play right now?

Elliott is playing now because U.S. District Court Judge Amos Mazzant III granted a preliminary injunction against the NFL’s suspension, allowing the Cowboys star to keep playing while his lawsuit against the league plays out in the federal court system.

From a legal standpoint, how is the NFL trying to take Elliott off the field?

The NFL has appealed Mazzant’s decision, asking for the injunction against the suspension to be lifted and have Elliott’s case completely thrown out of the federal court system.

What is the NFL’s argument?

Without getting into all of the collective-bargaining agreement yarns in the NFL’s argument, the bottom line is this: the league says Mazzant improperly granted an injunction to let Elliott play. The NFL is also going one big step further in its appeal, saying that Mazzant never should have accepted Elliott’s case in the first place, and that the appeals court should recognize that and order Mazzant to dismiss it altogether.

So what does Elliott’s team want if it wins?

The running back’s team is asking the appeals court to refuse the NFL’s argument to throw Elliott’s case out and to also uphold the injunction that is keeping him on the field. With that, Elliott’s lawsuit against the NFL would press forward in federal court.

What are the potential bad outcomes for Elliott?

The first bad scenario for Elliott: If his injunction against the NFL is lifted, he’ll be subject to serving his suspension at the discretion of commissioner Roger Goodell, who would likely take him off the field as early as Week 5 against the Green Bay Packers. In this (unlikely) case, his federal lawsuit would go forward with him off the field.

The second bad scenario for Elliott: If the appeals court determines Judge Mazzant didn’t have proper jurisdiction over Elliott’s federal case, it would order his case dismissed. It’s more likely that Elliott’s case would be dismissed than a “50-50” outcome that would determine Judge Mazzant was correct in taking Elliott’s case, but incorrect in granting the injunction. It’s more likely the appeals court rules in an all-or-nothing fashion. Either Judge Mazzant was completely correct in taking the case and issuing the injunction, or he should have never have taken the case at all.

If Elliott’s case gets struck down in the appeals court, is this over?

No. If the appeals court rules Judge Mazzant didn’t have proper jurisdiction over the case and it gets tossed, Elliott could proceed with the fight – but this time in the league’s preferred district court in New York. That means this entire thing would reboot on the same legal battleground where Tom Brady lost his deflate-gate case – the U.S. Southern District Court of New York.

Additionally, if this were to restart in New York, Elliott would have to ask for another injunction from that district court if he wanted to stay on the field during his fight there. And according to sources close to Elliott, he would do exactly that.

There is a lot hanging in the balance Monday. The court could issue its determination as soon as the end of the week. Either Elliott goes down and has to slog is his way through the same New York jurisdiction as Brady (and likely lose). Or the NFL loses and this entire drama plays out in a Texas district court, which would theoretically be a tougher fight than even the Brady case.

It’s Texas vs. New York on many levels. And someone is walking away with a significant loss.

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