MINNEAPOLIS -- A Minnesota judge chastised the NFL on Thursday and said the league broke state law even as he handed the league a significant victory in a closely watched lawsuit by two Minnesota Vikings challenging their suspensions for taking a banned substance.
Hennepin County District Judge Gary Larson said the NFL failed to notify the two players of their test results within three days, as required in Minnesota, and said an NFL official played "a game of 'gotcha" with them. But he said that wasn't enough to block the NFL's plan to suspend the players for four games each.
The decision doesn't necessarily clear the way for the NFL to suspend Kevin Williams and Pat Williams for part of next season, however. The judge put off a decision on whether to extend an injunction blocking the suspensions pending an expected appeal by the players. A decision isn't expected for about two weeks.
The NFL first attempted to suspend the defensive tackles in December 2008, a few months 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 and said they had no idea the diuretic was in the supplement.
The players challenged their suspensions while their lawsuit played out in federal and state court. They got to play for the entire 2009-10 season, helping Minnesota reach the NFC championship game, where it lost to eventual Super Bowl winner New Orleans.
The Williamses' lead attorney, Peter Ginsberg, said the decision was a victory because the judge ruled that the NFL was a "joint employer" of the players and had to abide by state law.
"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 sports 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, but that it "has always believed in and supported" the NFL policy.
A Vikings spokesman said the team had no immediate comment.
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.
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 a free agent after being released by the Saints.
The Williamses acknowledged taking StarCaps the night before a weigh-in during 2008 training camp. The supplement did not list bumetanide as an ingredient on the label, and the players testified they would not have taken StarCaps if they had known.
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 and he singled out 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.
Larson, however, also noted that both Vikings players acknowledged no harm was done to them by waiting months before the NFL told them of the positive drug test results.
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 and said both the NFL and team employed the players.
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."
"We respectfully disagree," Aiello said.
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 the first four games of the season.
It wasn't immediately clear, however, how long the appeals process might take. Another attorney for the players, Steve Rau, told Larson it might take the appeals court until November to decide unless the court expedites the case.