MINNEAPOLIS -- After more than a year and a half of legal maneuvering in their closely watched labor fight with the NFL, Minnesota Vikings defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams may finally learn in May if they must serve a four-game suspension for taking a banned substance.
Attorneys for the players and the NFL made closing arguments Friday, wrapping up a five-day trial that included testimony from the two players, their coach and an NFL official. The players contend the NFL broke Minnesota law when it applied its anti-doping policy two years ago and are seeking unspecified damages.
Hennepin County Judge Gary Larson told both sides to submit final briefs by April 2 and said he will rule between 30 and 45 days after that, sometime in the first half of May.
If he favors the league, his injunction blocking the suspensions -- which were initially levied in December 2008 -- would likely be lifted. That would allow the NFL to follow through with the punishment, yanking the heart of Minnesota's stout run defense out of the lineup for a quarter of the 2010 season.
An appeal by the loser is anticipated, however, so the end of this complicated case is not necessarily in sight. The players declined to comment until after the judge's ruling.
"Been a long week," Pat Williams said outside the courtroom.
A key issue at trial is who employs the two players -- the team, the NFL or both. Players attorney Peter Ginsberg contends the NFL is the employer and thus violated Minnesota law regarding a required three-day notification of their positive test in 2008 and also failed to keep it confidential. News that the Williamses were among several NFL players who took a weight-loss pill called StarCaps containing the banned diuretic bumetanide broke in October 2008.
Ginsberg argued that the NFL has tight control of both teams and players, right down to the required color of the chinstraps on the helmets. (It's white.)
He also criticized the league for unfairness and told the judge that "the arrogance and the coldheartedness of the NFL in administering the policy needs to be stopped."
Joe Schmitt, an attorney for the NFL, accused Ginsberg of "raising red herrings" and trying to "bootstrap" the arguments about unfairness onto their claim the league broke state drug-testing law. The unfairness claim was previously dismissed in federal court.
Schmitt argued that the terms of the collective bargaining agreement dictate league activity and said that the NFL is not able to impose at will rules upon the individual teams and players. Ginsberg has accused the NFL of leaking the information about the positive test to the media and therefore breaking the confidentiality code, but Schmitt said there was "not a shred of evidence" that occurred.
"It's undisputed that we got it right," Schmitt said.
The NFL has called the lawsuit a "state law end-around that can undermine all anti-doping policies in sports." 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.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was not ultimately called to be a witness, but Vikings coach Brad Childress and vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski testified on Friday.
Ginsberg asked Childress if he was the source of the leak, after the players confided their positive test to him.
"Absolutely not," the coach said. "That's so anti-me."
In a lighter moment, Ginsberg concluded his examination by asking Childress: "Who is your quarterback going to be next year?"
Childress simply smiled, unwilling to make any comments about Brett Favre's status.
"It's OK to have fun in here sometimes," Larson said.
The league alleges the leak came from Ginsberg or someone on the players' side. Brzezinski was equally adamant it wasn't him.
"Don't feel offended. He's asked everybody," Larson said.
Responded Brzezinski: "I like my job, your honor."
Both sides tried to use Brzezinski to support their claims about who employs the Williamses. Brzezinski compared the Vikings to a McDonald's restaurant, as a franchisee operating under the parent company, during Ginsberg's examination. During cross-examination by NFL attorney Dan Nash, Brzezinski testified the Vikings had complete authority to hire him and dictate his salary -- not the league.