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Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Loophole leads Vikes' case to Congress

By T.J. Quinn
ESPN

WASHINGTON -- Kevin and Pat Williams, who weigh a combined 628 pounds, are paid to push their big bodies through small spaces to cause maximum disruption. They do it well.

But since these two Minnesota Vikings defensive linemen tested positive for a banned drug -- a diuretic called bumetanide, which they say was in a a legal diet supplement called StarCaps -- last year, they have caused a disruption like few players have ever managed. Their lawsuit against the NFL over their positive drug tests exposed a weakness in the league's antidoping policy -- in all professional American sports' drug policies, for that matter. The leagues knew the loophole was there and hoped no one would try to wriggle through.

Leave it to two All-Pro tackles and their lawyers to find it.

The players believe that Minnesota state labor law prevents the NFL from suspending them for a drug they took outside the workplace. The Minnesota State Supreme Court has said they might be right and the league can't suspend the players until their case has been heard.

Kevin Williams and Pat Williams
So long as the case is alive and their suspensions can't be enforced, Kevin Williams (93) and Pat Williams (94) can celebrate.

Which brings us to Tuesday. The NFL felt the latest court decision is enough of a threat to its drug policy that it asked for a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, where it asked Congress to pass a law that would exempt sports from state labor laws. The league's point: If a state can pass a law that overrides a collectively bargained drug policy, a player in one state could take drugs that a player in another state couldn't.

Subcommittee chairman Bobby Rush, D-Ill., made it clear in Tuesday's hearing that he wants the NFL and the NFL Players Association to work out their differences on their own and that legislation would be a "last resort."

Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., also is keeping an eye on the issue and might call for Senate hearings at some point, too, depending on how the legal case plays out and whether the House decides to take any action.

Federal legislation, though, looks unlikely in the near future, and some observers Tuesday questioned whether the NFL truly even wants it. Once Congress gets involved a little, they said, it might get involved a lot in the league's business.

The players' case looks as though it has become a proxy fight between the NFL and the union over control of the drug policy. The NFLPA and NFL agreed more than 20 years ago that the league would have the final say over challenges to the drug policy's implementation. Now, however, the NFLPA wants an independent arbitrator to oversee the program, which would bring it in line with the other professional sports leagues'. The NFL likes the system the way it is.

With MLB senior vice president Rob Manfred and MLBPA general counsel Michael Weiner sitting beside them, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith turned the hearing into a forum to snipe at each other over the case.

The league's drug policy, as it relates to the Williamses' case, is clear: The two players tested positive last year for bumetanide, which helps with weight loss but also can mask steroids use. Bumetanide is banned under the policy, so the players were suspended for four games.

But the Williamses, who are not related, felt their case should be an exception.

Their contracts with the Vikings offer them $400,000 in incentive bonuses for losing weight, and in their efforts to make those incentives, they took the StarCaps. Bumetanide was not listed as an ingredient on the bottle, but lab tests showed the supplement contained it.

The NFL's drug policy is based on the standard antidoping principle of "strict liability," in which an athlete is responsible for whatever ends up in his or her body. So whether the players didn't knowingly take the drug is irrelevant.

The players argue that the system wasn't fair to them, saying the NFL knew that StarCaps contained bumetanide but didn't disclose that fact to players. When the players were suspended for four games each, they challenged the suspensions, and their case went before the NFL's administrator.

Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith
Tuesday's sniping started soon after this handshake between Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith.

"This should not be a 'gotcha' game," Smith said Tuesday during questioning. "The challenge to those suspensions recognizes that players are responsible for what's in their bodies. But all of us would agree, the one thing that's implicit in that program is fairness. That's why those suspensions were challenged."

Goodell, lamenting that the union is fighting the NFL, dismissed Smith's points. First, he said the NFLPA's lawsuit, which included the argument that the league failed to disclose that bumetadine was in StarCaps, has been dismissed in two different jurisdictions. The NFLPA is no longer a party to the Williamses' suit.

Goodell also argued that the matter shouldn't have been in court, that the union should have stuck to precedent and left the decision over the players' suspension to the league's administrator.

What the commissioner really wants to avoid is leaving the decision, and the future of the league's drug program, in the hands of judges.

"We're going to continue to defend our program in the Minnesota Supreme Court," Goodell told subcommittee members. "This problem was initiated by the players' association. That's why your committee is looking at this and why we believe narrow legislation would be required."

Like it or not, though, he might have to ask the Minnesota State Legislature -- and any other state with statutes that might conflict with the league's collectively-bargained policy -- to change its laws, and find common ground with the union on the issue.

"You don't want us getting involved in this," Rush said. "You don't know what happens when you open Pandora's box. I ask that you all work this thing out."

T.J. Quinn is a reporter for ESPN and can be reached at tjquinn31@yahoo.com.