The Washington Federals announced yesterday the signing of Southern Methodist running back Craig James, the team's first-round draft choice. Although team officials refused to comment on the terms of the agreement at a press conference at RFK Stadium, the four-year deal is worth approximately $1.5 million in salary and signing bonuses, according to sources.

"We can now say with some good conscience, that we are giving the fans good football with some classy ballplayers," said Federals owner Berl Bernhard.

This signing, like that of Ohio State running back Tim Spencer last week by the Chicago Blitz, could signal the start of an expensive bidding war between the new United States Football League and the NFL, which holds its college draft in April.

Asked about the risk of signing on with a new league, James said, "The Joe Namaths and the Billy Cannons, everybody laughed at them when they went to the AFL. No one is laughing about it now."

By accepting the Federals' offer, James effectively disqualifies himself from playing in the NFL. The 6-foot-1 215-pounder compared the decision to his turning down a scholarship offer from the University of Alabama, an established football powerhouse, to attend SMU.

"I know I'll set some team records for the first year," said James, a three-time All-Southwest Conference player.

James shared the tailback spot at SMU with Eric Dickerson, and together they were known as the "Pony Express." Although Dickerson is considered a somewhat stronger, and faster, prospect, James had impressive statistics in SMU's shuttle system: 3,742 yards rushing, 26 touchdowns and a 43.9 career punting average.

James and Dickerson completed their college careers by leading SMU to an 11-0-1 record, a Cotton Bowl win and second spot in the national rankings.

James said he and his fiance Marilyn Arps will begin looking for a house in the Washington area today. Asked how it feels to become a millionaire at the age of 22, James said, "I've never even thought about having money. The way Marilyn and I have been living has been another thing. But we haven't missed a meal."

Because the Federals' camp begins Jan. 31, James plans to take his final semester at SMU next fall.

Since the USFL college draft nine days ago, Federals officials have made no secret of the articulate Texan's abilities not only as a running back but as a marketing advantage.

To promote the league's opening game between George Allen's Chicago Blitz and the Federals March 6 at RFK Stadium, the Federals flew Spencer to yesterday's press conference. As would befit members of a select club--the nouveau riche--Spencer and James exchanged smiles, compliments and handshakes in front of a USFL banner.

"Jesse James Comes to Washington," "DickerJames," "Pony Express." James has been associated with more promotional ideas than many major corporations. "I've even heard the 'Federal Express,' " said James. "I really like that."