Ruling May Dilute Drug Policy in N.F.L.
In a ruling that could spell trouble for the N.F.L. and its antidoping policy, a Minnesota judge said Thursday that two players on the Vikings could sue the league in state court for violating parts of Minnesota’s drug-testing laws.
The decision threatens to dilute the league’s ability to use a single policy to monitor its players, regardless of where they play. The 44-page ruling by Gary Larson, a state court judge in Hennepin County, could prompt players on teams elsewhere to challenge their drug suspensions in state courts.
Congress, too, may feel compelled to pass legislation to preclude that possibility.
The case, which has bounced between state and federal court for more than a year, centers on Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, Vikings players whom the N.F.L. suspended for four games in 2008. The two tested positive for bumetanide, a diuretic banned by the league that can be used as a masking agent for steroids. The substance was in StarCaps, a legal weight-loss supplement the players acknowledged taking.
At the heart of their claim, the players said they were employed in Minnesota and therefore subjected to Minnesota workplace drug-testing guidelines. The league’s handling of their suspensions violated those laws, they said. The league says the players are bound by its drug policy.
Although Larson threw out several largely procedural claims by the players, he agreed that they were employees in Minnesota and therefore subjected to local drug-testing rules. He allowed them to sue the league in a trial scheduled for March 8.
“Professional sports organizations, employing players in Minnesota, must conform their activities to the procedural and substantive protections and safeguards set forth in DATWA,” Larson wrote, referring to the Drug Testing in the Workplace Act.
He also said that the injunction that has allowed the players to play despite the league’s suspension should remain in effect until other issues have been resolved.
“The N.F.L. is claiming victory, but the fact that the case goes on is a victory for the players,” said Robert A. Boland, who teaches sports law at New York University. “The Williamses keep playing and flouting the drug policy when the league wants this to be black and white.”
The N.F.L. did not seem perturbed by the decision, focusing on what the judge threw out.
“Today’s decision, along with the federal court decisions in this case, properly rejected virtually all of the claims asserted against the N.F.L.’s program on performance-enhancing drugs,” the league said in a statement. “It further confirmed that the program is operated with integrity and consistent with best scientific practices.”
Even if the N.F.L. wins in Minnesota, lawyers said the problem would not go away.
If the state legislature creates an exemption for athletes, it might “put the finger in the dike in Minnesota, but what about other states?” said Jeffrey Standen, a law professor at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. “If not this year, then next year, a player might get rights in state courts,” he said.
Feb. 18, 2010
New York Times