More than a year after two Minnesota Vikings sued the NFL over its anti-doping procedures, the closely watched case heads to trial Monday with sports leagues worried the outcome will hurt their ability to enforce drug policies across the country
Defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams played all last season while challenging their four-game suspensions for testing positive for a banned diuretic during training camp in 2008. The NFL wanted the case decided in federal court, but it instead wound up before a Minnesota judge.
The trial will attempt to settle a handful of labor issues and the big one is deciding who employs the players — the NFL, the Vikings, or both — when it comes to drug testing. A state judge said that if the NFL employs the players, even partially, then the league has to follow Minnesota labor law, though the issue must be settled at trial.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello calls the lawsuit a "state law end-around that can undermine all anti-doping policies in sports."
"Most of the claims in the state law case have already been dismissed. But for an anti-doping policy to be effective on (a) national basis for leagues that have teams in many states, there must be uniform standards that cannot be cherry-picked state-by-state based on different state laws," Aiello said in a statement Friday.
Two years ago, the players tested positive for the banned substance bumetanide, which can mask the presence of steroids; they are not accused of taking steroids. Both acknowledged taking the over-the-counter weight loss supplement StarCaps the night before a training camp weigh-in so they could meet their weight targets and earn $400,000 bonuses.
Attorneys for the Williamses contend NFL officials knew StarCaps contained bumetanide — even though it was not listed as an ingredient on the label — and did not specifically notify players or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The NFL countered that players are responsible for what they put into their bodies, and Aiello said the league properly administered its anti-drug policy.
The Williamses, who are not related, contend the NFL is their employer and had to comply with Minnesota law requiring notice of a positive drug test within three business days. Their attorney, Peter Ginsberg, said the league has "erratically managed" the policy and kept "obviously important information" from the players.
"We believe strongly that the (NFL's) steroid policy has the potential of being the best organized sports (anti-doping) program. Unfortunately, the NFL has manipulated and mismanaged that policy, so our hope is the policy, after this trial, will be stronger and better," Ginsberg said.
Other sports leagues, including Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL, filed court papers supporting the NFL's position, saying the Williamses' case could affect their ability to enforce their own rules against steroids and other drugs.
Professor Angela Cornell, a labor law expert at Cornell Law School, said the lawsuit could make it more difficult for the NFL and other leagues to uniformly enforce their drug policies. But she said the case raises broader issues about privacy rights.
"Certainly we all want to have uniform drug policies in major league sports, because that would be helpful," Cornell said. "But that doesn't mean that we want to deprive states of their ability to pass threshold protection for employees."
Another expert, sports economist Joel Maxcy of the University of Georgia, said he doesn't see big implications from the outcome of the case.
If the NFL loses, Maxcy said, it "doesn't change the fact that they have drug testing and can suspend a player for drug use. It just might change the circumstances in some cases."
Also to be decided is whether the NFL violated a state confidentiality law. The media learned about the test results before the Williamses or their attorneys, but the league has said there's no evidence that it leaked the results.
The Williamses are seeking unspecified damages for harm to their reputation and lost economic opportunities as well as attorneys' fees.
"As a result of the way the NFL has handled its testing and its responsibility to keep confidential certain matters, Kevin and Pat's reputation has been tainted. They have been lumped with steroid users, people who have tried to mask steroid use," Ginsberg said.
The Williamses' suspensions have remained on hold while the legal challenges are played out. New Orleans Saints players Charles Grant and Will Smith also tested positive for bumetanide but were allowed to play last season, which ended with the Saints winning the Super Bowl after earlier beating the Vikings in the playoffs.