Neither Williams nor his agent responded to multiple requests for comment. The Redskins have also declined to comment after issuing a brief statement confirming Williams’ suspension on Tuesday afternoon. People familiar with the situation said that Redskins officials supported Williams’ stance that the players union had erred in the handling of the situation. The NFLPA declined to comment through a spokesman, citing the confidentiality of the drug program that cannot be violated without the player’s consent.
The dispute doesn’t stem from any contention from Williams’s side that his number infractions don’t justify the penalty he currently faces under the collectively bargained program. Instead, it’s based on an objection to a procedural issue that Williams’s side and the Redskins argue left him unaware of where he stood in the escalation of penalties, without proper notice that he was one violation away from a suspension.
Williams and his representatives contend that the process got off track when an NFLPA lawyer acting on Williams’ behalf negotiated a sanction for an infraction of the sport’s substance-abuse policy, which was revised in 2014 in part to lessen the severity of sanctions for marijuana use, without understanding where he was in the schedule of penalties.
The policy spells out escalating penalties for repeated positive marijuana tests. After a first positive, a player is referred to a treatment program and tested more frequently. Subsequent infractions result in a two-game fine, a four-game fine and a four-game suspension.
In Williams’ case, the infractions that led to his four-game suspension were positive marijuana tests and, in one instance, a missed test, according to sources familiar with the matter. But the escalation of penalties did not follow protocol, in the view of Williams’ camp.
After Williams was flagged for a second infraction, an NFLPA lawyer acting on his behalf agreed to a penalty equivalent to that imposed for a third offense (warranting a four-game fine). The lawyer wasn’t aware Williams hadn’t previously received a two-game fine, according to sources. Moreover, sources say, Williams wasn’t informed about the agreement. As a result, he wasn’t aware that he was within one violation of a four-game suspension.
Disputes over the substance-abuse policy, which was developed by the NFL and NFLPA with input from medical professionals who administer the program, are settled by an arbitrator, with lawyers from the NFLPA typically representing players.
At some point this fall, Williams sought resolution of his case from an arbitrator.
The sequence of events that followed is unclear.
Williams, 28, was informed that he had missed a drug test, which under the policy is treated as a failed test.
Williams told the arbitrator that he was traveling in Africa at the time he was summoned for the test and had notified the NFL of his travel plans, as players in the drug-treatment program are required. He also intended to dispute the four-week fine that should have been a two-week fine. Because the schedule of penalties was not followed, Williams was not “on notice” that a next infraction would trigger a suspension.
But without Williams present, according to a source, the NFLPA lawyer representing him agreed to “consolidate” the four-game fine and the four-game suspension.
Williams was stunned to learn he had been suspended.
For the Redskins, losing their four-time Pro Bowl left tackle represents a major blow to their hopes of defending their NFC East championship.
A four-time Pro Bowl honoree, the 6-foot-5, 318-pound Williams is arguably the team’s best offensive player, charged with protecting quarterback Kirk Cousins’ blind side when he drops back to throw and punching open running lanes for Redskins ball carriers. He also commands tremendous respect among teammates for playing hurt. In seven seasons in Washington, Williams has missed just seven of a possible 104 games because of injury.
This season, he has played at a high level despite injuries to both knees.
After rallying to a 4-2 start, the squad has slipped to 4-3-1 and sits at the bottom of the division heading into the most difficult stretch of their schedule. Williams will miss upcoming games against Minnesota, Green Bay, Dallas and Arizona.
He served a four-game suspension in 2011 for multiple violations of the substance-abuse policy. After not testing positive for an extended period, Williams’ record had been expunged.