A federal appeals court on Friday cleared the way for Minnesota Vikings Pat Williams and Kevin Williams to play all season, despite the NFL's attempts to suspend them for violating the league's anti-doping policy.
The NFL had already said the two defensive tackles could play in Sunday's season-opener at Cleveland because their court fight over the suspensions would not be decided in time.
"It's a big sigh of relief to know we're going to get to play the whole season," Kevin Williams said. "We were looking forward to Cleveland not knowing what the future may hold. But it's great to get if off of our shoulders in the season and know we can deal with it in the offseason."
The fight isn't over, but a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld earlier decisions from a federal district court -- including one that says the remaining legal issues must be resolved in state court. The judge there has issued an injunction prohibiting the NFL from suspending the players, and he has said a state trial during the 2009 season was unlikely.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league is troubled by the ruling, which says federal law doesn't pre-empt state law just because the parties are involved in a collective bargaining agreement.
"It is putting in jeopardy a drug program that has been put in front of the entire world as being one of the highest standards in all of sports," Goodell said in an interview on WFAN-AM in New York on Friday. "It puts in jeopardy that players in Minnesota in any sport -- this could affect other sports -- are subject to a different standard than in the other 49 states. You recognize that it is a fairness question for all the athletes."
Goodell said the NFL was considering its next step, which could include an appeal, a trial in state court, or taking the issue to Congress.
"The players objected to a system where the NFL can withhold information from its players and nonetheless punished the players for some something about which they were unaware," the NFLPA released in a statement. "What the NFL dismisses as mere silence, players challenged in the pursuit of fairness. Nonetheless, the NFL knows that the players continued to seek a mutual resolution of this issue up until this decision. The NFL's concern for uniformity is as important today as it was before the 8th Circuit's decision. We are reviewing the decision, but we continue to welcome the opportunity to discuss a resolution that is fair to all players."
The NFL wants to suspend the Williamses, who are not related, for four games each after they both tested positive for a banned substance during training camp in 2008.
The players are not accused of taking steroids. They acknowledge taking the over-the-counter weight loss supplement StarCaps, which did not state on the label that it contained the diuretic bumetanide. The diuretic is banned by the NFL because it can mask the presence of steroids.
The legal case contesting the suspensions has many twists and turns. In late 2008, the Williamses met with the league to appeal their suspensions, saying they didn't know StarCaps contained the banned substance. The league upheld the suspensions, saying it had warned about the product in 2006.
So the Williamses sued the NFL in state court, asking a judge to block the suspensions. The Williamses argued the NFL's testing violated Minnesota workplace laws.
The case was moved to federal court, and the NFL Players Association filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of the Williamses and three New Orleans Saints players who were also suspended. In May, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson dismissed the NFLPA's lawsuit and several claims in the Williamses' case -- then sent two claims involving Minnesota workplace laws back to state court.
The appeals court panel on Friday agreed with Magnuson's decisions.
Attorneys for the NFL had argued it should be allowed to enforce its anti-doping policy because it was a product of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement with the players union. The agreement is governed by federal labor law, which they argued pre-empted the state laws the Williamses are using to block their suspensions. The NFL has said players are responsible for what they put into their bodies.
Minnesota state law requires that an employer give an employee who tests positive for drug use the right to explain the positive test. The NFL's policy says a positive result won't be excused because a player was unaware he was taking a prohibited substance.
Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL filed a friend-of-the-court brief in July supporting the NFL's position. In court papers, they argued that they need uniform policies.
An attorney for the Williamses was pleased with Friday's ruling.
"It's a terrific ruling for us and it's a terrific ruling for unionized employees everywhere," Peter Ginsberg said. He said the ruling shows that "even an $8 billion business cannot ignore liberty rights and protections established by state legislatures."
The appeals court decision could affect current New Orleans Saints players Charles Grant and Will Smith, as well as Deuce McAllister, the Saints' career rushing leader who was released after last season. The three are not part of the Williamses' lawsuit in state court.
The NFL will review the judge's ruling and make an announcement on those suspensions.
"The thing that I'm focused on right now is to play Detroit," Saints defensive end Charles Grant said. "Everything else that is happening, if it's meant for us to play, we'll play. If we don't, we have to be grown men, suck it up and take what's due to us."
The news, in fact, could not be better for the Vikings, who fancy themselves as Super Bowl contenders this season. Losing the "Williams Wall" would have been devastating for their defense, which is one of the best against the run in recent history.
Now they can be sure that both players will be in the lineup every week as they defend their NFC North title.
"It's definitely great to have them back," said Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards. "They're pretty much the heart of the defense and you can't really do too much without your heart."
Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.