MINNEAPOLIS -- The closely watched labor fight between the NFL and two members of the Minnesota Vikings who challenged their drug-related suspensions will go to trial next month.
A Minnesota judge ruled Thursday that a lawsuit over the NFL's suspensions of Vikings defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams will go to trial March 8 to settle some employment issues, including whether the NFL, the Vikings -- or both -- are the players' employer for purposes of drug testing.
In a 44-page ruling, Hennepin County District Judge Gary Larson issued many findings, some in favor of the Williamses, some in favor of the NFL. He said the NFL acted properly in many areas of its drug testing, but he also said if the NFL employs the players, even just partially, then the league has to follow Minnesota labor laws.
The Williamses argue the NFL is their employer, not the Vikings, and the NFL has the sole authority to test for drugs. Larson said that issue is unclear and will be decided at trial.
The Williamses -- who are not related -- were suspended for four games after testing positive in 2008 for the banned substance bumetanide, which can mask the presence of steroids. They are not accused of taking steroids. They sued the NFL, arguing the league's testing violated Minnesota labor law.
The case was moved to federal court, but parts of it were ultimately sent back to state court.
Larson has issued a temporary injunction that has blocked the Williamses' suspensions so far. That's still in effect, but on Thursday, Larson denied the players' request to make it permanent. The NFL said two New Orleans Saints also violated the same policy, but allowed defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith to play in a season in which their team won the Super Bowl.
Peter Ginsberg, an attorney for the Williamses, said his clients are pleased that state statutes would apply to the NFL.
"Pat and Kevin are that much closer to finally getting to trial," he said. "They've been fighting the NFL for well over a year now. I think we have finally cleared all the barriers the NFL has put in front of Kevin and Pat."
Now, he said "we have to prove that the NFL controls the conditions of employment."
The NFL has argued that federal labor law should pre-empt state law because uniform standards are necessary for players nationwide. In the federal case, Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL filed documents supporting the NFL's position, saying they need uniform standards to enforce their own rules against steroids and other drugs.
In an e-mailed statement, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Larson's ruling "properly rejected virtually all of the claims asserted against the NFL's program on performance enhancing drugs. It further confirmed that the program is operated with integrity and consistent with best scientific practices."
In siding with the league, Larson said the NFL gave the Williamses proper notice of the testing, gave them a chance to explain the results and took proper action before issuing the suspensions.
However, he also concluded that state laws on drug testing don't place an excessive burden on professional sports.
"Complying with Minnesota law does not hinder the NFL's ability to combat steroid use throughout the league," Larson wrote. He said many states have laws on drug testing, and that many corporations that participate in employee drug testing conduct business in other states every day.
"Defendants fail to demonstrate why it would be more onerous for the NFL to comply with state laws, than for any other business engaged in interstate commerce," he wrote.
The trial will also consider whether the NFL's policy on drug testing meets or exceeds state requirements. And it is expected to determine whether the NFL violated state confidentiality rules because the press found out about the test results before the Williamses or their attorneys. The NFL has said there's no evidence that it leaked the results to the media.