Williamses’ case remains unresolved

There was some stunning news out of Minnesota on Thursday regarding the Vikings (and it had nothing to do with quarterbacks): The pendulum balancing the NFL’s four-game suspensions of defensive tackles Pat and Kevin Williams, which had recently swung in favor of the league, swung back in favor of the players. The suspensions that were supposed to occur during the 2008 season and didn’t are now uncertain again for the 2009 season.

This is a fascinating (I know that’s a relative term when it comes to complex legal matters beyond the game) intersection between federal law, state law, the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and labor and employment law policies on the state and federal level. All of the above are relevant and connected to a saga that still has no discernible conclusion.

What happened?

The Williamses were suspended four games last season after testing positive for Bumetanide, a diuretic. The drug is not a steroid; it is, in fact, quite the opposite, an ingredient that masks the presence of steroids in a specimen. It was found in the weight-loss supplement StarCaps, which did not disclose the ingredient on the label.

The StarCaps case set off suspensions, grievances, lawsuits, accusations of nondisclosure by the league and the union and even a lawsuit against the supplement’s manufacturer by Jamar Nesbit, a Saints player who served a four-game suspension for a positive test.

On Dec. 11, after the Williamses’ case passed through arbitration to state court to federal court, a federal judge lifted the league suspensions and allowed the players to complete the 2008 season, a victory for them.

Aren’t players responsible for what’s in their bodies?

Yes, and that has been the NFL’s argument all along. Whether a player is taking a cold medication, a weight-loss pill or anything else, he is subject to strict liability for what is in his system and faces penalties for positive tests.

In May, a federal judge in Minnesota agreed with the strict liability mandate to the NFL testing procedures and ruled that the NFL did not violate the CBA by suspending the players, a victory for the league.

However, that victory was tempered by the fact that the judge said the Williamses' state claims were not pre-empted by the CBA and sent the case back to the state judge. Now that state judge has blocked the suspensions once again due to state laws.

What about the Minnesota state laws is different than the NFL testing policies?

The Drug Testing in the Workplace Act in the state of Minnesota has rigid guidelines and procedures as to how and when employers can test employees, standards that are tougher for employers than the NFL requires in its Policy for Anabolic Steroids and Related Substances. The state judge has now blocked the NFL from subjecting the Williamses to reasonable-cause drug testing, which the league can do – according to the policy – on a random basis up to six times in the offseason.

Can states’ drug-testing procedures trump that of the NFL?

That’s the question. The position of the NFL would certainly not allow for that, creating a system of anarchy in which the NFL would have to somehow be in compliance with state laws governing testing of employees in the 21 states where there are teams. The league has to have a uniform system of operating in order to consistently apply its rules and regulations. Without it, every Vikings player, and ultimately every player in the league, can look to state law if it’s more favorable to employees than the league policy. Anarchy indeed.

What happens now?

The NFL has appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit to hopefully have a definitive and declaratory ruling that the labor laws and policies of the collectively bargained NFL-NFLPA drug policies take precedence over any state ruling. The league has had previous success in federal court rulings that collectively bargained agreements should not be disturbed. In my opinion, the federal labor policy deferring to such agreements should be paramount.

Can the Williamses play for the Vikings on opening day Sept. 13 at Cleveland?

As of today, yes. But also as of today, their quarterback for that game is either Tarvaris Jackson or Sage Rosenfels. The next hearing is set for July 22. Stay tuned.

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