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.