PHILADELPHIA - In a surprising turn of events, there is a growing feeling that Terrell Owens' trade to the Ravens will be rescinded if a settlement between the NFL and the players union can't be reached, a source close to the arbitration hearing said last night.
The lawyers for the NFL Players Association presented an unexpectedly strong case yesterday to support the Pro Bowl receiver's claim that he voided his contract with the San Francisco 49ers in time and should become a free agent.
According to the players union, Owens' deal was signed two years before there was an amendment to the league's collective bargaining agreement that states the deadline can be moved up.
Owens' contract, which was agreed upon in the summer of 1999, stipulates that he has up until the final date of the league year (March 2) to void his contract. The NFL is arguing that he must adhere to the deadline set for all players, which was Feb. 21, and Owens missed that date despite receiving proper notification of the change.
But the source said the union's latest stance created enough ambiguity to weaken what many considered an overwhelmingly strong argument by the league and triggered nearly eight hours of talks among the NFL management council, the players union, the Ravens, 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles.
Discussions ended around 11 p.m. with no resolution. One scenario has the Ravens getting back their second-round draft choice (which they used to acquire Owens on March 4) as well as a compensatory pick for their trouble. The 49ers likely would trade Owens for a third-rounder from the Eagles, who reportedly have an agreement in principle with him.
But one of the main holdups is agreeing on the level of the Ravens' compensatory pick. Talks are scheduled to resume this morning.
If a compromise can't be reached, the case will be decided by arbitrator Stephen Burbank, who hearing his first case involving the NFL. The University of Pennsylvania law professor said he would rule today and e-mail the decision to the parties involved.
His judgment can be appealed to U.S. District Judge David Doty, who oversees the Collective Bargaining Agreement. It is unclear when Doty would be able to address an appeal.
"Very simply, the language that changed certain players' dates did not apply to his contract," said Jeffrey Kessler, one of the union's lawyers, on the steps outside the law school. "That's what the dispute is about at this proceeding today.
"The bottom line is that he was within the time period, and that's what the agreement provided for. We believe we're going to win."
Following the 2 1/2 -hour closed-door hearing, NFL lawyers declined to comment.
A terse John York, the 49ers owner, rushed off after the proceeding but still described the league's case as "strong." The Ravens were represented by Richard Cass, the incoming team president.
If the trade is nullified and Owens becomes a free agent - which is now the expected ruling - the Ravens would get back their second-round pick.
"We're waiting to hear," said Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' vice president of public relations.
Before yesterday's hearing, most league observers said they didn't expect the trade to be overturned because the union was going to concede that it notified Owens' agent of the new deadline.
"I would be stunned if the trade is not upheld," agent Mike Sullivan said before the hearing.
Baltimore-based agent Tony Agnone agreed, saying, "From a legal standpoint, I don't see the trade being nullified."
If the trade is rescinded, the Ravens would lose one of the league's most gifted yet temperamental playmakers, leaving a hole at receiver.
In the Ravens' pursuit of Owens, a weak free-agent receiver class has thinned even more. Marcus Robinson left the Ravens for the Minnesota Vikings, Darrell Jackson and Tai Streets have been signed, and David Boston is headed to the Miami Dolphins in a trade if he passes a physical.
The Ravens' current receiving corps consists of Travis Taylor, Frank Sanders, Randy Hymes, Ron Johnson and Javin Hunter.
Owens, though, repeatedly made it clear that he doesn't want to join the Ravens.
A day after the trade, he wrote on his Web site, "I'm a Raven for now, but not for long." He reiterated that desire last week, saying, "So that there is no misunderstanding, regardless of what happens with the grievance, under the present circumstances I do not see myself playing for the Ravens."
According to the union, Owens will be granted free agency.
"I feel a lot more confident today than I did a few weeks ago," said Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association. "We'll have a result [today] and that result we hope will be free agency for Mr. T.O. We'll just see. It's out of my hands."