The football future of Miami Dolphins tailback Ricky Williams, both short- and long-term, could be on the line Monday, as the NFL convenes a hearing to consider the appeal of the erstwhile runner to allegations that he again violated the league's substance abuse policy.
The hearing will be held in New York beginning at 2 p.m. ET at an undisclosed location and, unless Williams is successful in his appeal, he faces a year-long exile from the league. NFL attorney Jeff Pash is hearing the case. He is not expected to deliver a ruling on Monday.
According to reports, Williams tested positive, likely in December toward the end of the 2005 season, to a substance banned by the league.
In at least three other violations, Williams tested positive for marijuana. Several sources have claimed that the substance in the latest positive test was not marijuana. There have been suggestions that Williams will contend in his appeal that he ingested an herb which registered a red flag. Williams has been a student of holistic medicine for the past two years and the use of herbs is substantial in that practice.
Williams, who recently returned to South Florida after an offseason in which he spent considerable time in India on a yoga retreat, will be represented by David Cornwell. A former league counsel, Cornwell helped craft the NFL's substance abuse guidelines, is eminently familiar with the policy, and has represented many players in the past in the appeals process.
But if Cornwell is unsuccessful in persuading the league and commissioner Paul Tagliabue that there were extenuating circumstances in Williams' latest positive test, and that a year-long suspension is undeserved, the veteran tailback faces his second lengthy exile in three seasons.
Williams missed the entire 2004 season when he abruptly retired, only days before the start of training camp that summer, following his third violation of the substance abuse policy. Were he to be suspended for the entire 2006 campaign, Williams could apply for reinstatement to the league after one year. But were he to be reinstated in 2007, Williams would return as a 30-year-old running back who had appeared in just 12 games in three years.
Life is difficult enough for a running back in the NFL once he turns 30. It would be especially difficult for Williams, given the rust he would have accumulated. And there are no guarantees, if Williams is banished for 2006, that he would even want to resume his career when eligible for reinstatement.
The four-time 1,000-yard rusher returned to the Dolphins in 2005, served a four-game suspension for his past drug-related offenses, and forfeited an additional four game-checks as part of the sanctions against him. He then ran for 743 yards and six touchdowns while serving as the backup to rookie tailback Ronnie Brown, the team's first-round pick. Williams played in 12 games and started three of them.
For his career, Williams, the first-round draft choice of the New Orleans Saints, and traded to Miami in 2002, has rushed for 7,097 yards and 47 touchdowns on 1,757 carries. The former University of Texas star has appeared in 82 games and started 73 times.
In a related matter, Miami head coach Nick Saban, in a taped interview for ESPN that will air as a "Sunday Conversation" segment, said he does not believe Williams has a substance abuse problem.
"I've been with the guy all this time," Saban said. "He's had a significant amount of drug tests. ... So it depends on how you define that problem. But I'd just like to say that we're going to be very supportive of Ricky."
Miami officials might request an expedited decision in the Williams appeal. The draft is set for April 29-30, and Dolphins management would prefer to have some feel for Williams' availability in 2006 before the lottery. If the Dolphins know that Williams will not be available, they might address the issue of a backup to Brown during the draft.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.