Judge sides with NFL in Vikings’ Williamses StarCaps case

Published 12:48 pm Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Minnesota judge handed the NFL victory Thursday in a closely watched lawsuit by two Minnesota Vikings challenging their four-game suspensions for violating the league anti-doping policy.

Hennepin County District Judge Gary Larson said the league broke state law in applying its drug policy, but that wasn’t enough to block the punishment.

The decision doesn’t necessarily clear the way for the NFL to suspend Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, and their lawyer claimed victory. The judge scheduled a Thursday afternoon hearing on whether to grant a temporary injunction pending the players’ appeal.

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The NFL first attempted to suspend the defensive tackles in December 2008 after they tested positive for a banned diuretic that was in the StarCaps weight-loss supplement they were taking. They were not accused of taking steroids.

The players challenged their suspensions while their lawsuit played out through numerous twists and turns in federal and state court. They got to play for the entire 2009 season, helping Minnesota reach the NFC championship game, where they lost to eventual Super Bowl winner New Orleans.

Larson ruled that the NFL violated a three-day notice requirement under a state law governing drug testing in the workplace, but that the players weren’t harmed by it. He also ruled that the Williamses had failed to prove that the NFL violated the law’s confidentiality provision by leaking word of the positive drug tests. He denied their requests for a permanent injunction to block the suspensions.

The Williamses’ attorney, Peter Ginsberg, said the decision was a victory in that the judge ruled that the NFL was an employer of the players, violated the state law and must abide by it.

“The results are decidedly mixed,” he said. “All NFL players and the state of Minnesota have gained an important victory. No employer can stand above the law, including the NFL. We are obviously disappointed that, despite violating Kevin and Pat’s rights, the NFL still is threatening to suspend them. Kevin and Pat should be admired for the battle that they waged, not only for all NFL players but for all employees throughout the state of Minnesota.”

The Associated Press left messages with spokesmen for the NFL and the Vikings seeking comment.

If the NFL is ultimately allowed to impose punishment at the start of the upcoming season, the Vikings would be without the heart of their stout run defense for a quarter of the season. It wasn’t immediately clear, however, how long the appeals process might take.

Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League all filed briefs in support of the NFL’s position. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency filed a similar motion on its own.

The NFL and the other leagues argued that their own collectively bargained drug-testing programs would be at risk if state-level challenges like the Williamses were allowed to proceed. USADA argued that uniform rules are needed “to ensure a level playing field.”

The case dates to October 2008, when news leaked that several NFL players, including the Williamses, had tested positive for the diuretic bumetanide, which the NFL has banned because it can mask the presence of steroids.

The Williamses acknowledged taking the weight-loss supplement StarCaps the night before a weigh-in during training camp. StarCaps contained bumetanide but did not list it as an ingredient on the label. The players testified they would not have taken StarCaps if they had known it contained the banned drug.

One of the key issues in the trial was whether the Williamses, who are not related, were employees of the Vikings, the NFL or both, as they contended during the trial. The NFL had argued that they were Vikings employees only, so the league wasn’t subject to the state law. Larson disagreed, calling the NFL a “joint employer.”

It emerged in earlier proceedings that NFL officials had known that StarCaps contained bumetanide, but chose not to disclose that to players.

The NFL’s no-tolerance policy holds players responsible for knowing what they put into their bodies. While that was a key issue at earlier stages of the case, it wasn’t much of a legal factor by the time it finally went to trial before Larson on the narrower issues of notification and confidentiality.