Williams Short-term Benefits and Long-term Precedent

The Toronto Argonauts signing of suspended NFL star running back Ricky Williams this week has be praised and criticized from many angles. Miami Dolphin officials reluctantly agreed to the situation. ESPN commentator Joe Theisman ripped the Argos for the signing, called Williams a disgrace and a drug addict. Media reports in Canada have been positive, with many seeing only an upside to the signing of one of the dominant players in football and increasing exposure and popularity of the CFL game.

Williams’ story has been quite the soap opera the past few years. After 2 failed drug tests, a third failed test was to see him suspended for the first 4 games of the 2004 NFL season. Instead of facing the suspension and having his marijuana use made public (which it was eventually anyway), Williams retired from football, walking away from a $3.6 million/year contract that with incentives could have reached $6 million. Williams travelled the world like a college backpacker the next year and was sued by the Dolphins to recoup some of the $8 million in bonus money paid to him. Upon returning from his travels Williams agreed to return to the Dolphins after serving a 4-game suspension. He rushed for only 743 yards in 3 starts and 12 games in 2005.

After a fourth failed drug test Williams was suspended for the whole upcoming 2006 NFL season. Claiming that he is changed and doesn’t use marijuana anymore, Williams and his agent pursued signing a contract with the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL who added Williams to their negotiation list hours after he was suspended. Williams signing was announced May 28, 2006. All CFL contracts are standard for 1 year plus an option, so Williams and the Argos had to pledge that he would return to play for the Dolphins in 2007.

This case has certainly exposed weaknesses in the CFL’s policies and agreement with the NFL. Obviously the first issue is the lack of a drug policy in the CFL and there being no agreement between the leagues to respect each others suspensions. Williams and Miami risk an injury that could either limit his playing time next year or end his career.

However even greater and overlooked is the precedent this sets when a player is under contract to two leagues at the same time. While suspended by the NFL, Williams is still under contract to the Dolphins, though they do not have to pay his 2006 salary. So signing another contract with a team in another league, event though there are special circumstances, sets a precedent where the CFL loses players not during option year windows or after contracts expire, but when they are still under contract, perhaps in the middle of the season. In fact teams in the NFL, starting with Miami and extending to others who may see this as an opportunity to pick up players when ever they want, may decide to test the waters soon not only for revenge but also to test the legality if the situation.

The CFL has no basis to benefit from the situation except in these circumstances when a player is suspended and a player wishes to come to Canada to play for little money and risk injury. That is a lot of risk for little reward. Argo ownership has calculated that they can pay for Williams’ salary with an extra 1,000 fans to 10 games. This may cover the announced CFL salary of $240,000, but reports that an additional $260,000 was negotiated in side deals would not be covered. So the Argos have risked the talent pool of all the CFL for a 1 year blip in the attendance and popularity of their team. After the season the vast majority of those new ticket sales will have gone away since they bought for one reason only, and that is to see Ricky Williams play.

While I appreciate the leadership and stability Argo owners Howard Sokolowski and David Cynamon have brought to Toronto, this again appears to be a big market club making decisions for its own short term interests while ignoring the implications to the league and other franchises. Hopefully that effect is minimal.

4 Responses to “Williams Short-term Benefits and Long-term Precedent”

  1. jim Says:

    It probably won’t hurt the CFL, but maybe it should. I only say that because of the ethical concerns. The Argos and every other team will benefit in ticket sales at one time or another, but the message it sends is a poor one.
    Williams is not clean and probably never will be. This will be remembered as just another stunt when it’s all said and done.
    It’s too bad that character, respect, and good living can no longer be attributed to today’s sporting world.
    On the flip side, Williams drug use is known because he is an athlete. How many lawyers, doctors, CEO’s and such use drugs (whether marijuana or harder) that nobody knows about. Probably alot more than any of us would think.

  2. Jon Says:

    The drug thing is beat to death in my opinion. If he says he is clean, I will believe he has turned his life around until he proves otherwise.

    The real concern is that this affects the CFL long after Williams is gone.

    It is an interesting story when you start to read about Williams’ life more than just the retirement and suspension headlines. You can gain quite a bit of empathy for him. From having his shyness diagnosed as Social Anxiety Disorder and going on Paxil to shill for the drug company Glaxo SmithKline to playing hurt to being asked to play something he’s not in commercials to his thoughts on sports psychologists and the role of athletes, he has been very outspoken about his thoughts. Not necessarily critical of the NFL, but honest and open about many topics that the NFL would prefer not be talked about, including drug use.

    Williams revealed he avoided detection for 2 years by drinking a masking agent before drug tests. Only because he decided not use the masking agent did he get caught. Therefore one can only speculate that there are many other NFL players using marijuana and not being caught because of the use of masking agents. Its one of those things where the NFL wants the perception that their league is clean more than they want the players clean themselves.

  3. Cindy Says:

    I read an article where Don Mathews expressed his disgust with Toronto’s signing. He said there is already a clause that says a player can not play in the CFL while under contract to another league. Isn’t Williams still under contract to the Dolphins?

  4. Jon Says:

    I think that has been on the minds of many who think about these things. Now that Matthews has brought it up, the media are at least addressing it. Prior they didn’t even mention the fact or ask the question. You may not like their glossing over it with “whatever the reason, it’s done” rather than asking the hard questions of all the owners who are allowing this like do you only have rules to be followed when they suit you and don’t you foresee long term affects after your 1 year of bliss?

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