The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that it won't permanently block the NFL from suspending Vikings defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams for violating the league's anti-doping policy.
Barring another appeal, the ruling appears to clear the way for the NFL to suspend the players, which it has been trying to do since both tested positive for a banned diuretic in 2008. The players have been fighting their suspensions and could appeal the latest decision to the state Supreme Court.
Peter Ginsberg, an attorney for both players, said early Tuesday he had not talked to his clients and wasn't sure whether they would seek another appeal.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the NFL is reviewing the decision and determining how to proceed.
The Williamses, who are not related, tested positive in 2008 for bumetanide, a banned diuretic that can mask the presence of steroids that was in the StarCaps weight-loss supplement they were taking. They were not accused of taking steroids and said they didn't know the diuretic was in the supplement.
The players sued the NFL in state court, saying it violated state labor law. Their suspensions have been on hold while the case has been playing out in state and federal courts.
Last May, Hennepin County District Judge Gary Larson ruled the NFL broke state law when it failed to notify the players of their positive test results within the mandated three days. But the judge also declined to permanently block the NFL from suspending the players, saying they weren't harmed by the notification delays.
The players appealed, asking that the suspensions be permanently blocked.
A three-judge panel of the appeals court affirmed the lower court's decision to deny permanent relief from the suspensions — but had different reasons for its decision.
The appeals court ruled that bumetanide isn't defined as a drug under state law, so the NFL wasn't required to tell the players of its presence in the drug tests.
According to the 11-page decision, the Williamses provided urine samples for drug testing during their annual physical exams in 2008. The samples for each player were divided into separate bottles for testing purposes. Once an initial test read positive for bumetanide, the other samples were tested to confirm the presence of the diuretic.
The appeals court ruled that since the purpose of those confirmatory tests was solely to detect the presence of bumetanide — which state law doesn't define as a drug — there is no legal basis for the court to find that the NFL violated the state's notification requirements.
"Accordingly, although we do not agree with the district court's interpretation of (state law), we nevertheless affirm its order denying injunctive relief," the appeals court ruled.
The appeals court said that if the initial screening and subsequent tests had been positive for anabolic steroids — which are defined as a drug by the state — the NFL would have been subject to reporting requirements.
Ginsberg, the Williamses attorney, said the court ruled the NFL has to follow the law, but since it was testing for bumetanide, the restrictions of the law don't apply to his clients.
"The NFL has again sort of lost the war but won the battle," Ginsberg said. He said he hopes the union takes a more proactive role in fashioning a better drug testing policy in future contract negotiations with the NFL.
Aiello said the NFL is pleased with the decision, saying it confirms that the NFL's testing program did not violate Minnesota state law and "vindicates the policy and procedures of the program."
Pat Williams, the oldest defensive player in the league last season at 38, finished a three-year contract and will be a free agent. The Vikings aren't expected to re-sign him. The three-time Pro Bowl pick has seen his production and playing time decrease over the last few seasons.
Asked whether Pat Williams would appeal, his agent Angelo Wright, said: "I don't know yet, but we'll do something." Wright said Williams plans to play this season.
"He's just working on being in great shape and getting ready to play football," Wright said.
The 30-year-old Kevin Williams also is coming off a substandard season, with a career-low one sack. His agent did not immediately return a phone message left Tuesday.
The NFL had argued its anti-doping policy was a product of its collective bargaining agreement with the players' union and was governed by federal labor law, which should trump state laws.
The case was watched by other major sports leagues — including the MLB, NBA and NHL — which supported the NFL and a their drug-testing programs would be at risk if players were allowed to challenge drug-testing policies in different state courts.
Saints defensive end Will Smith and former Saints end Charles Grant tested positive for the same substance, but were not involved in the Minnesota lawsuit. The NFL has held off on enforcing their four-game suspensions until the Minnesota case is resolved. Grant is currently a free agent.
Associated Press Sports Writer Dave Campbell contributed to this report.