MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — 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's anti-doping policy,
Hennepin County District Judge Gary Larson said the league broke a notification rule in state law and played "a game of 'gotcha'" with the two players, but said 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 for part of next season and their lawyer claimed victory, saying it established that the NFL is bound by Minnesota labor law. The judge scheduled a Thursday afternoon hearing on whether to grant a temporary injunction against the suspensions pending the players' appeal.
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 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 failed to notify the two players of the test results within three days, as required by state law. But he noted that the players admitted they weren't harmed by the delay and denied their request 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."
The NFL and other leagues argued that their drug-testing programs would be at risk if state-level challenges like the Williamses were allowed to proceed. 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.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the decision showed that the players' claims "were without substance and that the players suffered no harm by being required to comply with the terms of the collectively-bargained policy on steroids and related substances.
"We intend to continue to administer a strong, effective program on performance-enhancing drugs that applies on a uniform basis to all players in all states," Aiello said.
A spokesman for the NFL Players' Association said the union was reviewing the ruling. A Vikings spokesman said the team had no immediate 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.
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 StarCaps the night before a weigh-in during training camp. The supplement contained bumetanide but did not list it as an ingredient on the label, and the players testified they would not have taken StarCaps if they had known it contained the banned drug.
The NFL's no-tolerance policy holds players responsible for knowing what they put into their bodies. Still, Larson was sharply critical of how NFL officials handled the testing, particularly NFL vice president Adolpho Birch, who's responsible for implementing the drug policy.
Larson wrote that Birch knew NFL players were inadvertently ingesting bumetanide when they took StarCaps, but made a conscious decision not to tell players, the teams, the players' union or federal regulators.
"Birch knew full well that players would continue taking StarCaps and testing positive for bumetanide. ... Birch was playing a game of 'gotcha,'" Larson wrote.
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."
He also ruled that the Williamses failed to prove the NFL violated state confidentiality laws by leaking word of the positive drug tests. Still, the judge called Birch's investigation into the source of the leak "very brief" and "highly suspect," and said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell must have concluded the leak "was clearly of no importance."
AP Sports Writer Jon Krawczynski contributed to this report.
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The judge's decision: http://bit.ly/bCxY6u