Stretch run becomes court time in the NFL

Jason Cole

Welcome to commissioner Roger Goodell's nightmare.

It's the first weekend of December, when most fans and sports writers should be prepping their recitation of "On the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field … " Instead, the biggest impact player of the NFL season for fans – at least Friday – could be a dark-haired gentleman by the name of Paul A. Magnuson, who works in St. Paul, Minn.

Magnuson doesn't play for the Minnesota Vikings. There are no stats on the back of a trading card for him.

Magnuson is a judge with the U.S. District Court whose primary brushes with fame include dismissing a civil case filed by the lead guitar player from Rush and once ripping former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. Oh, you can feel the excitement growing as fans get geeked up about the Alex Lifeson verdict, can't you?

In a courtroom that probably features some really nice mahogany walls, Magnuson will hear arguments between lawyers for the NFL and the NFL Players Association about whether Vikings defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, and New Orleans running back Deuce McAllister and defensive end Will Smith will be allowed to continue playing the rest of the regular season.

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Losing Pat, left, and Kevin Williams would be a major blow for the Vikes.

(US Presswire/Bruce Kluckhohn)

All four players (along with injured Saints defensive end Charles Grant) are fighting four-game suspensions imposed by the league for violation of the NFL's policy against performance-enhancing substances. All tested positive after taking a supplement called StarCaps, which included a banned substance called bumetanide.

Likewise, the NFL can't be too happy that the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants have spent this week dealing with the fallout from Plaxico Burress. But at least in the case of Burress, the league can't sit there and kick itself for creating that mess.

In short, it's the first week of the home stretch of the regular season and the NFL's focus is in court instead of on the field. Interesting matchups such as the Dallas Cowboys at Pittsburgh, the Giants against the Philadelphia Eagles and the Baltimore Ravens vs. the Washington Redskins Sunday are taking a backseat to arguments between lawyers such as Jeff Pash of the NFL and Richard Berthelsen of the NFLPA.

But even in all of this, there are serious on-field implications. Particularly for the Vikings, who currently hold a one-game lead in the NFC North over the Chicago Bears. If the Vikings can keep the Williamses playing, they have interesting potential for the playoffs. They have an excellent defense and a great running back in Adrian Peterson. That could be enough to get to the NFC championship game.

Moreover, there are massive considerations for the future of the Vikings. This was a critical year for coach Brad Childress, with owner Zygi Wilf expecting the team to make a playoff run. Right now, Childress seemingly has a tenuous hold on his job.

Without the Williamses, is Childress held to the same standard? Or does Wilf cut the coach a break if the Vikings fall apart assuming the suspensions are upheld?

On the flip side, teams such as the Atlanta Falcons, Chicago, Washington and Dallas will obviously be miffed if Minnesota and New Orleans don't lose their players. Bears owner Mike McCaskey, Arthur Blank of Atlanta and Jerry Jones of the Cowboys all declined to discuss the situation regarding the teams they are competing with for playoff spots. However, if the Vikings are able to beat the system and get the Williamses to play, don't expect those owners to be silent forever, particularly the next time they see Goodell.

But again, in a more general sense, this is the last thing the NFL really wants. About the only good that has come of the Burress situation and the StarCaps case is that nobody is talking about the return of Adam "Pacman" Jones to Dallas.

Yeah, that's not really much of a benefit.

Then again, the NFL has only itself to blame on this one. The league could have avoided this whole mess by simply warning the players about StarCaps. As far back as 2006, the league knew StarCaps contained bumetanide, a diuretic that flushes water through the body to prompt weight loss.

If the NFL had simply posted, "The supplement StarCaps contains a banned substance, please don't use" on a piece of paper in every locker room of the league's 32 teams, one of two things would have happened.

Either the players wouldn't have used it or the ones who did would have been quickly nicknamed "El Stupido."

However, somewhere in the concocted logic of those in charge of the NFL's policy, it was deemed a good idea for doctors and toxicologists not to say anything directly to the players. Instead, memos and letters were sent only to team executives and to the NFLPA.

In fact, the league won't even produce one of the key memos in the case, which supposedly told team officials and NFLPA Director of Players Development Stacy Robinson that the company that produced StarCaps made supplements that contained banned substances.

All of that makes for great theorizing and supposition, including elaborate conspiracy theories and outlandish suspicions.

Unfortunately, none of that has anything to do with what happens on the field. It's the kind of stuff that only comes out after weeks and months of courtroom wrangling. Ultimately, it's not nearly as interesting as watching a few good games on Sunday.

Goodell and the NFL just hope you can remember that.