A four-man player-management committee today deadlocked, by a vote of 2-2, in deciding whether John Riggins can return to the Washington Redskins this season as an active player.
The case now goes before an independent arbitrator, Bert Luskin of Chicago, a choice agreed upon by both parites whose decision will be binding.
However, the hearing is not expected to be held for at least another month, and possibly longer. Thus, the issue probably will not be resolved in time for Riggins to play again this year.
Riggins told the Player-Club Relations Committee today that he was "ready, able and willing" to play right now for the Redskins, but the team denied him that opportunity by placing him on the league's "left camp-retired" list in September.
Riggins made his statement during a hearing over a grievance filed by the NFL Players Association that sought to reverse Riggins' inclusion on that retirement list. This case is also considered a test case on the entire issue of the validity of the "left camp-retired" list issue.
After the 90-minute hearing, Riggins reiterated his desire to rejoin the Redskins this season. By placing him on the left camp-retired list, the team barred Riggins from playing for any NFL team this year.He can be activated for next season.
"I don't just want to play, I want to win," Riggins said. "I'm ready to go. I could play against New Orleans (Washington's opponent Sunday), but I guess it's not to be. I'm in shape. I could perform."
Earlier, Riggins, a nine-year veteran and one of the league's top 10 career rushers, said in an interview that he had not made up his mind about rejoining the Redskins next year. But he said Washington's current 2-5 record justifies his evaluation of what he thought to be his net worth to the club.
"They've played into my hands," he said. "But they do have a better team than they've shown. Naturally, I'd like to think I'd play a vital role if I was there, but I can't say they are 2-5 because I'm gone, nor would I say that I wasn't worth what I was asking if they were 5-2 right now."
The Redskins can retain rights to Riggins for next season by renewing the option on his current contract after his season ends. Id they do that, he could play for them next season at 110 percent of his current $300,000 contract or negotiate a new contract. The club can trade him, waive him or decide not to renew his option. He then would become a free agent and could sign with any club without compensation to Washington.
Redskin General Manager Bobby Beathard said last night, "I don't see how the arbitrator can rule in his favor." He steadfastly declined to comment when asked if he would like to see Riggins return to the team this or any other season. "We'll wait until the arbitrator rules before getting into that," he said.
I'd prefer to let the river run its course. I don't know enough now to comment on it," said Redskin Coach Jack Pardee. "When we get the decision, I'll be happy to talk about it."
Riggins, meanwhile, implied strongly that he would exercise a clause in his current contract that gives him the right to nullify any trade.
"They've taken a hardball stance with me and they should expect the same in return," he said.
Today's actions were the latest chapter in a story that began July 27 when Riggins left training camp, after reporting two days earlier, and returned to his home in Lawrence, Kan. On July 31, he sent a telegram to the Redskins informing them of his retirement.
He said later that he had lost his desire to play. To rekindle his interest, he asked the Redskins to turn the 1981 option year of his contract into a one-year, $500,000 guaranteed pact. He would have earned $300,000 if he had played this season.
The Redskins refused his offer, saying it would be in violation of team policy barring renegotiation of contracts. Riggins dropped his salary demands the day the training camp closed, but did not report, saying, "I can't motivate myself to play and that's the best way to leave yourself open to injury."
A week later, Washington placed him on the left camp-retired list, instead of exercising other available options that included waiving or trading him, counting him on the active 45-man roster or putting him in the league's "reserve" category.
If he had been put in the reserve classification, he would have been able to return this year but only after clearing waivers. The Redskins were convinced they could never get him through waivers, so they decided against taking that risk.
The NFLPA immediately announced it would file a grievance with the league. Ed Garvey, the NFLPA executive director, disputed the claim by the Redskins that Riggins officially had reported to camp -- he took part in testing but did not practice -- and also charged that the left camp-retired lsit was not a valid category under the current collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFLPA.
"They are denying him a right to pursue his livelihood," Garvey said,
After today's vote, Garvey said he was "disappointed," and added, "I'd like to go to arbitration tomorrow," so that the issue could be resolved before the season is over.
Representing the NFL Management Council in today's hearing -- and voting in the Redskins' favor -- were Jim Kensil, president of the New York Jets, and Terry Bledsoe, assistant general manager of the New York Giants. The NFLPA representatives -- voting in Riggins' favor -- both were former Redskins, Len Hauss and Brig Owens. Hauss is a former president of the NFLPA while Owens currently works for the union.
The hearing was relatively informal with no recorded testimony and no strict legal procedures in effect. Riggins, dressed in a vest, tie and white cowboy boots, was heard first and then gave more testimony after Redskin lawyer Lawrence Lucchino said the entire dispute was moot because the player already said he was retired and didn't want to p lay this season.
Although sources said Redskin officials believe Riggins made his statement in order to strengthen his grievance case, Riggins later said he was serious about his intentions.
"I would be lying if I said I didn't miss football, alhough it's not eating me up inside because I'm not playing," he said.
Prior to the announcement of the committee's decision, Riggins talked extensively about his possible motivation for returning to the NFL next season.
"I'm like Muhammad Ali. He defies the odds all the time.Maybe I want to prove some things. Ali is 39 and the greatest. I'm 31 and an also-ran.
"I like to play, perform, entertain. That aspect of the game you never miss. You never get too old for that. But you may get into a situation where the economics don't pay you to play any more or where you can't put up with some undercurrents on the team."
Riggins says he has "no regrets" about retiring, "except if it caused any hardship on people, although an unpopular decision will always cause some hardship."
He said he could play "comfortably" for the Redskins again "because I'm a professional. This is my occupation. I could go back there to play with my friends on the team, but I don't know if it would be a blast to play in front of the fans again. But I'm prepared to take that risk."