On Thursday, Minnesota District Court Judge, Gary Larson, published a preliminary ruling in the case involving Minnesota Vikings Pat and Kevin Williams' challenge of their NFL suspensions. In that ruling, Judge Larson reasserted the Williams' right to play in the NFL, free of suspension, until their case has been fully decided. Judge Larson's ruling means that the Williamses could be available to play for the Vikings part, all, or none of the 2009 season.
At the heart of Judge Larson's decision is the appeal that the NFL has initiated in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, contending that Judge Magnuson erred in finding that the NFL's collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the NFL players' union is subject to Minnesota employment laws. Since a ruling against the Williamses in the Eighth Circuit would eviscerate the Williams' State claim, Judge Larson appears willing to allow the Eighth Circuit to complete its review of the NFL's appeal before commencing the State proceeding.
The obvious question in this case is whether the NFL would be better suited simply to drop its appeal in federal court, thereby permitting the case to proceed in state court, where, as has been discussed on this site in the past, the NFL is almost certain to prevail. In the short run, that's a good option for the NFL. In the long run, however, it only exacerbates the issue.
If the NFL fails to prevail in its appeal of Judge Magnuson's determination that the NFL CBA is governed by state employment laws, the league almost certainly will face similar state-based challenges to its drug-testing policy in the future. That means not only more headache for the NFL in enforcing its drug policy, but also significant legal fees.
Of course, the NFL could attempt to modify its drug policy to account for all relevant state laws, but that's far easier said than done, particularly if there are state employment laws that do not allow for strict liability in testing or that require numerous failed tests before suspension is allowed. And even if the NFL changed its policies to account for the most lenient of state drug-testing policies, the league still would be required to appear in state courts, before team-friendly judges, to defend against player challenges--a worst-case scenario for the NFL.
Clearly, the NFL has an incentive to have Judge Magnuson's decision in the Williams' case reversed as it pertains to state claims. But that could take an eternity. If the Eighth Circuit upholds Judge Magnuson's determination on the state issue, the Williamses could appeal to the full Eighth Circuit bench and, if necessary, to the U.S. Supreme Court. The entire process could take years, even if the Supreme Court elects not to hear the appeal.
That could mean that the Williamses not only are permitted to play in the NFL at the beginning of the 2009 season, but throughout the entire season and into seasons beyond. That likely would span the remainder of Pat Williams' career and allow the Vikings more time to find a suitable four-game substitute for Kevin Williams--assuming even he is still playing when this entire affair finally plays out.
The Williamses are not necessarily in the clear for 2009, however. It is possible, though not likely, that the Eighth Circuit will act quickly both in its ruling on the NFL's appeal and on any subsequent appeal by either party. And it is possible that, thereafter, Judge Larson will begin proceedings on the state issue, if necessary, and find against the Williamses.
At this point, however, it appears increasingly likely that the NFL will bite the bullet, accept their Pyrrhic victory over the Williamses, and feverishly work to ensure that, in the future, the CBA is subject to federal law, rather than to state laws.
Up Next: Favre's Arrival.