The Philadelphia Eagles rejected an apology from banished wide receiver Terrell Owens and a public plea by his agent for the club to reinstate him immediately yesterday, sending the dispute between Owens and the Eagles to a grievance hearing scheduled for next week.
Richard Berthelsen, the general counsel of the NFL Players Association, said the union filed a grievance on Owens's behalf Monday night and that a hearing is scheduled before arbitrator Richard Bloch on Nov. 18 in Philadelphia.
Owens and agent Drew Rosenhaus said during a 15-minute appearance outside Owens's home in New Jersey yesterday afternoon that the receiver wants to return to the Eagles. But a club spokesman said the Eagles had no intention of lifting their four-game suspension of Owens for conduct detrimental to the team, or of changing their plan to have him inactive for the rest of the season once the suspension expires.
Berthelsen said the grievance maintains that the Eagles' punishment of Owens is excessive because the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the union only allows a player to be suspended for four games for conduct detrimental to the team, and the Eagles have added a five-game deactivation to that.
"When you have a CBA that says that maximum discipline for conduct detrimental is four weeks without pay, you can't add on to that that he also won't be playing for Philadelphia again this year," Berthelsen said. "If he can't play, it means he can't earn incentives, he can't be considered for the Pro Bowl. It has real serious implications for the player.
"It far exceeds what's permitted by the CBA, and four weeks seems excessive compared to other cases we've handled. Players have been suspended for not participating in practice, or for leaving the field before a game is finished. We've been able to reduce many of those to fines instead of suspensions."
Berthelsen and attorney Jeffrey Kessler will argue Owens's case at next week's hearing, while attorney Daniel Nash of Akin Gump will represent the NFL and the Eagles. Owens is scheduled to attend what is likely to be a one-day hearing.
Owens is not being paid during his suspension, which would cost him about $800,000 of his $3.25 million salary. A clause in Owens's contract also might enable the Eagles to attempt to force him to return about $1.7 million of his $2.3 million signing bonus. The Eagles would have to pay him for the five games he would be deactivated at the end of the season, and are expected to release him in the offseason unless they're able to trade him.
Owens criticized the team's front office and quarterback Donovan McNabb in a televised interview Thursday, one day after he reportedly got into a locker room scuffle with former Eagles defensive end Hugh Douglas. The Eagles announced Saturday that Owens would not play Sunday night against the Washington Redskins, then Coach Andy Reid said Monday that the suspension would last three more games and that Owens would not be allowed to return to the team thereafter.
"It's like a judge saying to a defendant on Friday, 'You're going to jail for a month,' and then the judge coming back on Monday and saying: 'I changed my mind. It's now four months,' " Berthelsen said. Owens read from a prepared statement yesterday and did not answer reporters' questions. Owens apologized to McNabb, his other teammates, Reid, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, club president Joe Banner and the team's fans.
"This is very painful for me to be in this position," Owens said. "I know in my heart that I can help this team win the Super Bowl, not only being a dominant player but also being a team player. I can bring that. . . . I want everyone to know that football is my passion. I've always given it my all and I will continue to do so."
After Owens spoke, Rosenhaus engaged in a sometimes-combative exchange with reporters in which he said that Owens has been portrayed unfairly by the media. Rosenhaus said his goal was to broker a peace in which the Eagles would reinstate Owens this week and play him in Monday night's game against the Dallas Cowboys.
"There are players in the NFL who are arrested, who violate the program when it comes to drugs or substance abuse, and they are not punished as seriously as he has been," Rosenhaus said. "There are players who do not get criticized as heavily by the media who do very significant things. He hasn't broken any laws. He hasn't broken any rules. . . . We're focused exclusively on Terrell playing for the Philadelphia Eagles right away.
"He'd like to practice [today]. We're going to take every step possible to do that, I assure you. But all those people who have knocked him and have speculated about his future, let me assure you he will be playing in the future. He will be. He wants to be an Eagle. But I assure you, do not write him off."
The Eagles did not budge. Team spokesman Derek Boyko said by telephone, "Our stance on the matter has not changed."