As tailback Ricky Williams contemplates a return to the NFL, his representatives are considering having him file for bankruptcy in an attempt to void the remainder of his contract with the Miami Dolphins and make him a free agent, sources familiar with the deliberations said yesterday.
The NFL maintains that Williams would remain under contract to the Dolphins in a bankruptcy proceeding. But several attorneys familiar with Florida's bankruptcy laws said yesterday they believe that Williams probably would be able to have the contract voided and become a free agent, enabling him to sign with any NFL team.
Williams's representatives can use the threat of a bankruptcy proceeding as leverage in their dealings with the Dolphins, perhaps hoping to get him traded or released while brokering a deal in which he might repay the club less than the $8.6 million he owes it under a ruling by an arbitrator last month, said sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because deliberations are at a sensitive stage.
Williams, who abruptly retired from the Dolphins just before training camp, probably would be ineligible to play in the NFL this season, even if he wants to return, under the terms of the league's substance-abuse program. An attorney for Williams has sent a letter to the league asking for a clarification of Williams's playing status, and the NFL has yet to respond. A league spokesman declined to comment yesterday on Williams's playing status, citing the confidentiality of the substance-abuse program.
"He has a passion for playing and is anxious to resume his career," Williams's agent, Leigh Steinberg, said by telephone. "We are attempting to clarify his status to try to facilitate the fastest possible reentry. Returning to the Dolphins is fine with him."
But sources said that the team probably doesn't want Williams back and that Williams, who cited the way he was used by the Dolphins among the reasons for his retirement and has said he would like to play next for the Oakland Raiders, would prefer to be traded or released or declared a free agent. His representatives are convinced, the sources said, that a bankruptcy proceeding would result in free agency for Williams because his best chance to raise additional income to pay his debts would be negotiating a free-agent contract with a significant signing bonus.
Arbitrator Richard Bloch ruled that Williams must reimburse the Dolphins $8.6 million because of provisions in his contract requiring him to repay the club for past incentives paid to him and for portions of his original signing bonus given to him by the New Orleans Saints if he refuses to play.
Williams's associates maintain that Williams does not have the means to repay that amount.
The NFL said its collective bargaining agreement and labor law would prohibit Williams from becoming a free agent through the bankruptcy courts. "The Dolphins would continue to hold his NFL contractual rights," said Greg Aiello, the league's vice president of public relations.
But Glenn Moses, a bankruptcy attorney with the Miami firm of Genovese Joblove & Battista, said: "It is extremely unlikely that the Dolphins will be able to hold Ricky to his contract. The bankruptcy code authorizes the rejection of unfavorable contracts. Therefore, if it is in the best interests of Ricky's bankruptcy estate and his creditors, the bankruptcy court will authorize the rejection of the contract."
Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga reportedly was furious when Williams retired, and it's also possible that the team would trade or release Williams simply if he opts to return to the NFL, even without a bankruptcy proceeding. A Dolphins spokesman declined to comment, calling it a matter between Williams, his representatives and the league.
The Dolphins might not have to act quickly. Williams reportedly violated the substance-abuse policy for the third time shortly before his retirement by testing positive for marijuana and was facing a four-game suspension at the outset of this season. Under league rules, if a player who already is in the program retires and then returns in less than a year, he is charged with an additional violation of the program. In Williams's case, that would be his fourth violation, which generally would result in a one-year suspension. But sources close to Williams said that he was appealing his recent violation before he retired and they hope he could be cleared to play this year.
NFL Notes: Chris Simms will make his first pro start at quarterback for the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers this week, replacing Brad Johnson. . . . The New England Patriots signed starting left tackle Matt Light to a six-year contract extension. . . . Casey Tynes, 24, the brother-in-law of Packers quarterback Brett Favre, died yesterday evening after crashing an all-terrain vehicle on the player's property in Lamar County, Miss.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.