Friday, December 05, 2008

NFL's Fumbles Are Williams' Gain

Late today, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson upheld a lower court grant of a temporary restraining order (TRO) that will allow Minnesota Vikings' players Pat and Kevin Williams to continue practicing and playing with the Vikings until the Court has had the opportunity to hear further arguments on the players' claims. The ruling likely means that the Williamses not only will be available for Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions, but also for the remainder of the 2008 season, including any playoff games that the Vikings play.

Evidence raised at the hearing suggests that, prior to requesting that the Court overturn the TRO, the NFL had done considerable damage to its own cause. As previously noted on this site, the most compelling argument for the players in this case is that despite having a policy of strict liability on drug use, the NFL has undermined the policy by providing occasional information on newly banned substances and substances about which the players "should be aware." Though arguably helpful to the players, these actions suggest that the NFL understood that a policy of strict liability was not feasible. This is a point about which Judge Magnuson clearly had some concerns.

The NFL further burdened its cause in this case by concealing from players the league doctor's discovery of a banned substance in StarCaps. Rather than directly informing the players of this discovery, the league opted to send a general warning about StarCaps to each team and to the NFLPA. That might have been excusable, except that the league, in explaining its thought process to Judge Magnuson, claimed that it did not directly inform the players of the discovery regarding StarCaps' ingredients because it did not want to create the impression that the league was deviating from a policy of strict liability.

Of course, the league had already deviated from the policy of strict liability. The additional revelation to the Court only served further to cloud the issue and call into question the professionalism of the league in administering its policy. And it all but required Judge Magnuson to let stand the TRO and proceed with players' claim.

And if issue of whether the players in this case received the benefit of the due process required under the league's collective bargaining agreement were not already clouded, the attorney for the Williamses argued that both Pat and Kevin had called the league's banned substances hotline to specifically inquire whether StarCaps is a banned substance. The Williams' attorney contends that the players' calls went unanswered. Though the claim is suspicious, given that it is being raised several weeks after Vikings' wide-receiver Bernard Berrian made a similar allegation and that the Williamses, heretofore, have not raised this defense--a near-winning defense that one would presume would have been the heart of the players' defense--that the NFL has acknowledged difficulties with its hotline does not bode well for the NFL.

Despite the NFL's miscues, Friday's ruling does not necessarily let the Williamses off the hook. Instead, it merely buys the two players additional time. The irony is that the NFL's request for a change of venue, presumably made to avoid having the case heard in front of a Viking friendly Hennepin County judge, will now, instead, be heard in front of a home-town judge in a federal system known for being at least as protective of workers' rights as would be a Hennepin County judge. Moreover, with the move to the federal court system, delays are far more likely, particularly since the party against whom delays would be a burden, the players, have prevailed in the initial hearing regarding the TRO.

With billions of dollars in annual revenue, it is astonishing that the NFL would mess up what ought to have been a fairly clear drug policy by not paying attention to details. That they have done so, however, has operated to the Williamses and the Vikings' advantage. Even if the Williamses ultimately are fined or suspended for circumventing the league's ban on use of diuretics to meet contractual weight-clause terms, the suspensions likely will not occur this year and certainly will be meted out only after the Court has lectured the league on its policies. That could lead to a lesser suspension and/or lesser fines.

Up Next: Misdirection--What Childress Said, But the Opposite.


turdferguson said...

You really think that just because the judge wanted more time to read the briefs that this lets the Williams Wall off the hook for the year? Believe me, federal preemption in this area is strong. A much more likely scenario is that the suspensions are upheld sometime next week.

vikes geek said...


Judge Magnuson not only wants more time to read whatever briefs have been filed at this point but very well could request supplemental briefs and permit or request additional testimony.

There are still two stages remaining in this case (three if you consider the damages that the players are now requesting). The first is to determine if the Court has jurisdiction. Magnuson's questions and his willingness to uphold the TRO, suggest that he believes the issue is one for this Court to decide. That take might prove inaccurate. If it is, then this will be settled next week to the Williams' detriment.

The second stage is to decide the case itself. If the case gets to this point, it certainly will take longer than one week, perhaps months. Moreover, as I stated, there would be no need to expedite the process absent a request by the players to do so.

As for federal preemption, I'm not clear on your point. The argument is not that the state court has jurisdiction but that the jurisdiction to resolve the matter rests exclusively with the NFL as the result of the collective bargaining agreement. Whether the latter is the case will be left to Judge Magnuson to determine. And that determination likely will turn on policy rather than black letter law.


turdferguson said...

Not trying to be a smartass. I'm a law clerk for a federal judge myself and I took the time to read the briefs that were submitted by both sides. Upholding the TRO means maintaining the status quo. To enter preliminary injunctive relief, the judge would have to determine that there is a likelihood of success on the merits. I just don't see how that's possible. What I mean by preemption is that the Williams's state law claims are preempted by the federal arbitration process. To overturn an arbitrator's ruling, the process of which was collectively bargained by the players, is very difficult, and the judge is not supposed to weigh the merits of the case.

There are exceptions, and I take the Judge's decision to postpone a decision to mean that he only wants to read the briefs and relevant caselaw carefully and not be rushed into a decision. That may turn into weeks or months, but it certainly might not. Remember that this case only came before Judge Magnuson late Thursday after it was removed. To ask him to make an informed decision the very next day is kind of absurd, and his resistance to that doesn't necessarily mean anything about the merits of the players' cases.

vikes geek said...


I did not take you to be a smartass. I just did not understand your point regarding preemption. In addition to my previous comment that the consideration is not about state versus federal jurisdiction there is the matter of this being an arguably unique case in that it involves the NFL's collective bargaining agreement. That makes the issue of jurisdiction more difficult to determine.

I fully understand the legal process and understand that this could be resolved quickly or only after some months. I think we agree on that point. I also think that we agree that if Judge Magnuson finds merit, there is no reason to believe that this case will be resolved in the near term.

As for whether there is merit to the players' argument, it sounds like we might disagree. I believe that the NFL, both prior to the hearing to uphold the TRO and at the hearing, took actions and made statements that called into question the application and enforcement of its banned substances policy. What one judge might look at as an unfortunate set of circumstances for the NFL and the NFLPA to resolve in the next CBA another judge might very well consider so egregious that, as a matter of public policy, it must be overruled, at least as applied.

While most fans view this as a small issue, from a legal perspective, the implications are fairly significant. If the Court is willing to intervene in this instance, it surely opens the door to later interventions. That's something that probably even the players do not want as a general rule. If the Court declines to intervene, the message will be that the NFL truly does have carte blanche in establishing penalties. That might be how the CBA is written, but it seems to offend notions of justice in certain instances--possibly even in this case.

I can offer nothing other than a prediction on what Judge Magnuson intends to do in this case. While it is dangerous to read too much into a judge's questions and comments at a hearing, what I find interesting is that, as a jurisdictional issue, the judge really needn't require much time. One would think that that issue could have been settled on Friday, but that depends on what Judge Magnuson had going on Thursday night. My inclination is that he is at least leaning toward finding jurisdiction.

I appreciate your comments for two reasons. First, as many have said in recent weeks, it is becoming increasingly useful for those writing about sports to understand the law. This case demonstrates that point. And, as far as blog content, this kind of issue lends itself more to blogging than to traditional newspaper coverage by sports columnists not the least bit versed in the law. That's not a knock on anyone, just how things are. From that perspective, I particularly appreciate comments on this subject from those in the field of law. Second, anyone who unabashedly uses "turd" in their moniker has a (heaping) warm spot in my heart.

Keep posting.


turdferguson said...

Strictly speaking, it's not really a jurisdictional issue. The federal courts have jurisdiction because the case involves the interpretation and application of federal labor law pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement. The question is whether this case fits into one of the narrow instances where a federal judge should overturn an arbitrator's decision. The answer to that question, in almost every instance, is no. That doesn't mean that the case couldn't drag on or the injunction couldn't remain in effect for the time being.

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