A federal appeals court ruling today appears to have cleared the way for Minnesota Vikings tackles Kevin and Pat Williams to play the full 2009 season before returning to Hennepin County District court as early as next spring for a civil trial over their alleged use of a substance that can be used to mask steroids.
A three-judge panel of the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision affirming earlier rejections of the NFL's argument that federal courts have jurisdiction over the labor laws that govern its drug-testing program.
The league suspended the players for four games each late last year for taking bumetanide, a diuretic that can be used as a masking agent for steroids.
It was an unlisted ingredient in the over-the-counter supplement StarCaps, a weight-loss supplement. StarCaps was pulled off the market earlier this year after the Food and Drug Administration learned it contained bumetanide. The Williamses, who are not related, both said they didn't know StarCaps had the banned substance. Neither player tested positive for steroids.
The two star defensive tackles, known as the "Williams Wall," are considered significant to the team's defense and Super Bowl hopes.
Today's decision essentially allows the Williamses to play while keeping the remains of the case in Hennepin County, where Judge Gary Larson already has said he likely wouldn't force the players into a civil trial during the coming season. He also had delayed action in his courtroom until the federal court determined whether it has jurisdiction over some of the claims. Now the court has said it does not.
The Williamses responded to their suspensions by filing a lawsuit in state court contending that the NFL's drug-testing procedures violate Minnesota workplace laws, and they asked that a judge void their suspensions. Then the NFL Players Association sued in U.S. District Court on their behalf.
The NFL's attorneys argued that the state claims should be dismissed because the federal courts have jurisdiction over the labor laws that govern its drug-testing program. U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson of St. Paul and now the appellate court disagreed.
Magnuson also dismissed the union's additional claim that the suspensions violated the players' collective bargaining agreement. The appeals court's decision agreed with that ruling.
Eighth Circuit Judge Bobby Shepherd wrote the highly detailed 34-page decision for the panel that included Judges Duane Benton and Diana Murphy. The case is being closely watched by the National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball, all of which filed briefs supporting the NFL's position.
While the NFL could ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case, the court can decline. The NFL also could ask the entire Eighth Circuit court to review the case, something the court rarely agrees to do.
The NFL contends the stakes are high for the integrity of its business and drug policy. The league argues that subjecting its policy to divergent state regulations would render the national agreement impossible.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello didn't comment on possible appeals, but he said the ruling puts the drug testing policy in "jeopardy." He said, "The real losers today are the players on 31 other clubs who no longer live under the same rules as players on the Minnesota Vikings - a result of the NFL Players Association's failure to stand behind the program it negotiated with the league."
In its ruling, the appeals panel cited another case from the Ninth Circuit in which an argument similar to the NFL's was rejected. Shepherd wrote that national laws never intended to give union agreements the power "to displace any state law they found inconvenient."
Shepherd's ruling also cited the U.S. Supreme Court's observation that Congress didn't intend to "give substantive provisions of private agreements the force of federal law... Such a rule of law would delegate to unions and unionized employers the power to exempt themselves from whatever state labor standards they disfavored."
He also noted that the Williams' contracts with the Vikings state that Minnesota law governs them.
The Williams' lawyer, Peter Ginsberg, said the decision was a "win for all unionized employees. For the fifth time now the NFL has been told that notwithstanding its $8 billion profit, it has no right to ignore the liberty and safety and health protections of its employees."
Ginsberg said he's eager to get to trial on the players' claims in Hennepin County.
The NFL has a strict liability policy that holds players responsible for what goes into their bodies. But the Williamses argued that Minnesota law gives employees an opportunity to explain the innocent use of an otherwise banned product, and the NFL didn't allow them to explain their use of StarCaps.
"We just want to be treated right, and the situation we felt wasn't right, so we challenged it, and that's how we've been carrying on so far," Kevin Williams said.
Asked if he was excited about the news, Pat Williams said, "I'm always excited. I'm always happy. I'm happy every day. Ain't nothing going to bring me down -- trust me. I don't let nobody mess my day up."
Coach Brad Childress said the ruling removes an unknown. "Somehow we were going to know or we weren't going to know," he said. "I'm a big stay-in-the-now guy and don't get out over your skis. So we were dealing with it as we went. A day at a time."
Ginsberg said that at trial he can cite up to a dozen violations by the NFL of Minnesota labor law.
Staff Writers Chip Scoggins and Judd Zulgad contributed to this report.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747