Opting not to play for Ravens might force Owens to pay

Team could try to recoup portion of signing bonus

hearing moved to Monday

March 13, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

IF THE RULING GOES AS PREDICTED — Terrell Owens' hearing to determine whether he can become a free agent has been rescheduled for next week. What has not changed is the possibility of another costly decision looming afterward.

If the ruling goes as predicted - with his trade from the San Francisco 49ers being upheld, probably on Tuesday - Owens likely has two choices: play for the Ravens or pay them.

Owens, who was dealt for a second-round pick on March 4, has repeatedly said he doesn't want to play in Baltimore. But following through on a threatened holdout could result in a breach of contract and may cost him more than $3 million.

According to details obtained from his contract yesterday, the Ravens could demand Owens refund them a prorated portion of his signing bonus for every year he sits out. Though the bonus was entirely paid by the 49ers, the Ravens may recoup more than $1 million in each of the next three seasons (the remaining years of the contract) because they now control the rights of the existing deal.

Ravens officials declined to comment on this matter, saying they don't discuss the specifics of any player's contract. Owens' agent, David Joseph, also declined to comment on the case.

Owens is fighting to become a free agent so he can play for the Philadelphia Eagles. After failing to show up for a physical this week, the temperamental playmaker said, "Regardless of what happens with the grievance, under the present circumstances I do not see myself playing for the Ravens."

The arbitration hearing, which was to be conducted by conference call today, was rescheduled for Monday in Philadelphia so both sides can attend the proceedings in person.

A decision by special-case master Stephen B. Burbank, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, could be announced as early as the next day.

According to the NFL, Owens forfeited his free-agent rights when he failed to submit paperwork to void the final three years of his contract before a Feb. 21 deadline.

The NFL Players Association, which filed the case on Owens' behalf, will contend he should be ruled a free agent because both the 49ers and Owens were aware of his intentions to leave the team after the season. The union also will argue that he has two years - and not three - left on his contract because of a mistake made when the 49ers restructured his deal three years ago.

If he fails to win the dispute, Owens has mentioned the possibility of sitting out rather than playing for the Ravens.

"Like I told Ozzie [Newsome, general manager], `Why would you want somebody that doesn't want you?' It's crazy," Owens said. "I told him, `I don't want to be in Baltimore. I want to be in Philadelphia.' I don't want to say definitely that I'd hold out. But I want to emphasize I want to be in Philly so bad, that holding out is actually on my mind."

Sitting out could put Owens in a legal hearing again, only with much more to lose.

His situation would be similar to the one faced by former Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders. One of the NFL's all-time leading rushers, Sanders retired in 1999, just two seasons removed from signing a five-year contract that included an $11 million signing bonus.

Based on his contract - which stated Sanders would be in default (and owe money) if he "voluntarily refuses to report or leaves the club without its consent" - an arbiter ruled he had to repay one-sixth of the bonus for each year he failed to play under terms of the 1997 contract. Sanders eventually returned $5.5 million to the Lions.

Likewise, the Ravens would need to take similar steps to collect the prorated portion of the signing bonus if Owens refused to show up. Any grievance probably would not be filed until Owens missed training camp in August.

A league source said last night that the Ravens are optimistic about Owens reporting to the team if he is not granted free agency but are aware of their options if he holds out.

With Owens' situation unsettled, the Ravens have begun exploring other receivers, including David Boston, whom the San Diego Chargers are shopping after one troubled season.

Sun staff writer Paul McMullen contributed to this article.

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