NFC North: StarCaps

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Thursday marks the next step in the legal case of Minnesota defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, who are suing the NFL to overturn their four-game suspensions after testing positive for a banned substance last summer.

A motion for summary judgment will be heard in U.S. District Court in St. Paul, a hearing that essentially asks Judge Paul Magnuson if he is willing to decide the case based on the information he already has. If he does, the case could conceivably end Thursday. If not, the trial will remain scheduled for June 15.

Quick review: Both players reportedly ingested bumetanide through a weight-loss supplement known as StarCaps. Bumetanide is banned because it can serve a masking agent to avoid the detection of steroid use. The players are suing on the grounds that the NFL didn't properly warn them of its knowledge of StarCaps' true ingredients.

Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press produced a package of stories Thursday on the topic, including this one on the background of celebrity/socialite Nikki Haskell, who marketed StarCaps.

We'll do our best to keep you updated throughout the day as we navigate through a few top-secret meetings. Continuing around the NFC North:

  • Retired quarterback Brett Favre and Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell have been speaking regularly since Favre was released by the New York Jets last month, writes Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune.
  • Chicago general manager Jerry Angelo provided this explanation for his offensive philosophy to Matt Bowen of the National Football Post: "Our assumption is that it starts with the quarterback, and not the wide receivers. All you have to do is look north and see what Favre did with his receivers in Green Bay. I don't care who you gave Favre because they always looked good." I wonder what Sterling Sharpe and Antonio Freeman would say about that. Angelo also said he thought Minnesota needed more consistency from its quarterback.
  • Tom Pelissero of the Green Bay Press-Gazette examines how difficult it will be for a young receiver to crack the Packers' roster.
  • The Packers franchise turns 90 this summer, writes Martin Hendricks of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Detroit tailback Kevin Smith didn't back down (much) Wednesday from his prediction that the Lions will make the playoffs, according to David Birkett of the Oakland Press. Smith: "I didn't predict any wins, I didn't say we're going to win this amount of games. My whole point was we're good enough to get to the playoffs, and if we get to the playoffs anything can happen."
  • Michael Silver of Yahoo! Sports mocks Smith and the Lions recent history of making bold predictions.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
 Jackson

Detroit general manager Martin Mayhew has said he thinks the Lions need to get bigger and tougher on defense, especially at defensive tackle. They don't get much bigger than Grady Jackson, the 350-ish pound nose tackle who signed a three-year contract Wednesday with the Lions.

Jackson almost certainly will improve the Lions' rush defense, which ranked at the bottom of the NFL last season. When he's on the field, at least.

The Lions took a calculated risk with Jackson, whose status in the league's much-discussed StarCaps case hasn't been completely resolved. The league deferred punishment last winter on his positive test result pending further information. Five other players, including Minnesota defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, were suspended for four games and are awaiting the results of a legal dispute over the issue.

(In the meantime, Jackson has filed a class-action lawsuit against the manufacturer of StarCaps, which was found to contain the banned substance known as bumetanide.)

Jackson has not been suspended and may never be. But it's something to keep in mind as the league seeks resolution of the issue.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

U.S. District Court judge Paul Magnuson raised enough questions about the NFL's steroids policy that it's fair to begin wondering what changes could be imposed in time for the 2009 season.

The NFL Players Association plans to discuss the possibilities at its annual March retreat in Maui, Hawaii, according to Minnesota safety Darren Sharper, who is also the Vikings' player representative to the union. Sharper said he would like to see two specific issues addressed:

1. Clarity
Sharper said the policy should be "more concrete" and specify exactly what products can be consumed and which ones could result in a positive test. "It needs to be less confusing," Sharper said. As it stands, the NFL maintains a list of approved products and banned substances, but doesn't widely circulate a comprehensive list of specific products that contain banned substances.

2. The possibility of an independent arbitrator to settle disputes
Currently, NFL employees -- including chief attorney Jeff Pash -- preside over appeal hearings.

"The union and the NFL is definitely going to look at the policy now [during the offseason]," Sharper said. "We need to figure out what we need to do so that this doesn't have to happen again, with so much confusion."

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Green Bay defensive tackle Justin Harrell is approaching bust territory.

The Packers' 2007 first-round draft pick revealed Friday that he has not completely recovered from an offseason back injury that required two surgeries. The injury is now affecting his legs and hip. Doctors are not totally sure what the problem is, but Harrell admitted that pain has been shooting down his legs and that he has "never been 100 percent" since the first surgery.

Harrell has 13 tackles in six games this season, and Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel suggests there is "speculation" Harrell won't play for the rest of the season. Harrell is officially listed as questionable for Sunday's game at Jacksonville.

"Just talking to the doctors, you really can't pinpoint what's actually going on," Harrell said. "It could be a variety of things. We've been dealing with my hip in the whole rehab process ... I still really haven't got on the field. Ever since the first surgery, I've never been 100%, really. Just covered over it."

Unfortunately for the Packers, Harrell's situation is sitting on a silver platter for those who questioned the wisdom of drafting him after a long history of injuries in college. The Packers are going to have to get something substantial from him next season or it's going to be difficult to avoid entrance into bust territory.

Continuing our weekend jaunt around the NFC North:

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

One of the key legal arguments for the NFL's "StarCaps Five" is the claim that league officials never informed players that the weight-loss supplement contained bumetanide, a banned diuretic that can be used as a masking agent.

This assertion has rubbed some of our readers the wrong way. One of them, Jim of Richfield, forwarded us a 2007 article published in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology. (My subscription ran out last month.) In the article, researchers demonstrated that StarCaps contained bumetanide "at concentrations approaching therapeutic doses."

The authors, who worked for the Center for Human Toxicology at the University of Utah, even pointed out the specific perils facing athletes who take StarCaps:

The results showed that unregulated dietary supplements may put consumers at risk for unwitting consumption of prescription medications, and that it is possible for athletes to inadvertently test positive for bumetanide and face disciplinary actions.

Jim's point: The public availability of this study -- here is a summary, or "abstract" as we like to say in the scientific community -- means that any number of people could have warned the players about StarCaps. That list not only includes the NFL, but also team coaches, medical personnel, friends and personal doctors.

It's probably fair to assume that few people in the NFL have the Journal of Analytical Toxicology sitting on the coffee table. But the article was published in November 2007, and abstracts have been available online. Anyone who Googled "StarCaps" and "banned" or "StarCaps" and "diuretic" would have found enough information to doubt the authenticity of the product. (According to the lawsuit, all five players tested positive during the summer of 2008.)

There might well be more information forthcoming that would illustrate the extent to which the players in question investigated StarCaps before taking it. But unless we're missing something, anyone with an Internet connection could have gotten the scoop.

Does it lessen the culpability of the NFL? We'll let people smarter than us settle that one.

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