The Minnesota Vikings have taken the early lead in the NFC North this year after an undefeated September campaign. Not only are the Vikings 3 – 0 on the field this month, state and federal court rulings–most recently from the Eighth Circuit–have effectively prevented the NFL from enforcing its four-game suspension of Vikings’ defensive linemen Pat and Kevin Williams (no relation).

In 2008, the Williamses tested positive for bumetanide, a diuretic specifically banned by the League. The players admitted taking a dietary supplement, StarCaps, which (though not disclosed on the label!) contained bumetanide. As part of its collective bargaining agreement with the NFL, the Players Association accepted the League’s draconian drug policy, which holds players strictly liable for any substances they ingest. Tough luck, right?

Well, not exactly . . .

It turns out the League knew StarCaps contained bumetanide in 2006 but did not bother to inform the players of that discovery. Instead, the League sent out a memo forbidding the players from making “endorsements or other business relationships” with Balanced Health Products, the distributor of StarCaps (which has since been recalled). The Players Association–not the NFL–then sent a memo to all agents warning that players were prohibited from endorsing or using any of the company’s products. Whether or not the players had constructive knowledge that StarCaps contained a banned substance, an arbitrator for the NFL denied their appeal noting that strict liability is, well, strict.

Undeterred by this logic, the Williamses promptly sued the NFL. Going with the kitchen sink approach, they alleged an astonishing array of torts, some more ridiculous than others, including breach of fiduciary duty, violation of public policy, fraud, negligent misrepresentation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, among others. A state court judge issued a temporary restraining order, which gave both sides time to huddle up.

Procedurally, this case has now taken more twists and turns than Adrian Peterson in the open field, but here are some highlights. The NFL removed the case to federal court, and the Players Association sued the NFL on behalf of the players, alleging breach of contract and seeking to vacate the suspensions. The federal judge agreed with the NFL that federal law governing collective bargaining agreements preempted the players’ common law claims. He also refused to vacate the suspensions and dismissed the breach of contract claim. Game over, right?

Well, not exactly . . .

In a legal maneuver as timely and accurate as Brett Favre’s Hail Mary pass on Sunday, the players amended their complaint to allege violations of two Minnesota statutes governing consumable products and drug testing in the workplace. It turns out the good people of Minnesota do not allow employers in their state to discipline employees for a positive drug test without verifying the result. (Sounds reasonable to me! Did these folks really elect a professional wrestler as their governor?)

The Vikings must have dialed up the right play. Having dismissed the federal claims, the federal judge declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims, and left intact the temporary restraining order–allowing the Williamses to finish the 2008 season. This ruling satisfied exactly none of the parties and everybody appealed. The Eighth Circuit fixed its stamp of approval though, affirming the ruling in all respects earlier this month.

Facing fourth-and-long, the NFL called its last time out. The League has apparently not decided whether to seek a rehearing before the entire Eighth Circuit, but it met a Friday deadline to ask for more time. The upshot is that, barring such an en banc rehearing (or, God forbid, Supreme Court intervention), the fate of the Vikings’ defensive line rests with a Minnesota state court judge, who had already announced he will not rule on the case until after the 2009 season. Any chance that judge is a Vikings fan?

Nothing like home field advantage . . .

Nathan McGregor

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Additional Links:

On StarCaps, league points finger in the wrong direction

NFL has few options in Williams case

NFL to appeal on ruling that Vikings’ ‘Williams Wall’ can play all season

NFL confident it can beat Minnesota Vikings’ Williamses on their home turf

Starcaps case is a blow to NFL drug policy

NFL Players Union Hopes to Resolve StarCaps Case Outside of Court

StarCaps Ruling Could Give Vikings Unfair Advantage

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