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United States: Federal Court Rules State Law Governs NFL Players’ Drug Test Results

(Oct. 2, 2009) A United States federal appeals court has held that National Football League (NFL) players can use state law to challenge penalties for positive tests of substances banned by the league.

In 2006, five NFL players, including two from the Minnesota Vikings, tested positive for a substance banned by the NFL's policy on anabolic steroids, a policy that is part of a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the NFL and its players. The players were suspended for four games without pay. The players, joined by their union, challenged their suspensions in federal court. The Minnesota players asserted that Minnesota law governs their case, including the Drug and Alcohol Testing in the Workplace Act (DATWA), which bars punishment for initial positive drug test results and gives rights to employees to explain results and request retesting. The district court upheld the right of the players to pursue their claims that the NFL's suspension of the Minnesota players had violated their rights under DATWA.

The NFL appealed this decision, arguing that the players' state statutory claims were preempted by federal law, namely, section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, which governs suits for breaches of CBAs. In its review of whether federal or state law applied, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit determined that section 301 preempts state law only with respect to claims that are based on a provision of, or require interpretation of, a CBA. Applying this test, the court found that the players' claims were based on Minnesota law and not the CBA. The court thus upheld the rights of the players to challenge the NFL's actions under state law. (Williams v. National Football League, Nos. 09-2247/2462 (8th Cir. Sept. 11, 2009), available at