The lead attorney for the NFL Players Association said the union will fight any effort by the Atlanta Falcons to retrieve bonus money paid to suspended quarterback Michael Vick. Earlier this week, it was reported the Falcons will seek to reclaim at least $20 million in bonuses paid to Vick, who pleaded guilty Monday to federal dogfighting charges.
"We believe their case is not valid and we certainly will fight to protect Michael from any action taken by the Falcons," union attorney Richard Berthelsen said Thursday. "The lion's share of the money he received was in roster bonuses and we believe to the extent the Ashley Lelie case dealt with performance-based bonuses, this subject is already covered in the collective bargaining agreement."
A Falcons spokesman declined to comment.
In 2004, Vick received $37 million in bonuses from the Falcons as part of a 10-year, $130 million contract. According to a source, $7.5 million of the total bonus money was a signing bonus. Under the collective bargaining agreement, the Falcons have the right to get a prorated share of that money back, which could come to $3.75 million.
The other $29.5 million of the bonus portion was in roster bonuses – paid in installments of $22.5 million in 2005 and $7 million in 2006, according to NFLPA figures – which the union believes should be treated the same way as in previous cases.
Last November, an arbitrator ruled that former Denver Broncos wide receiver Ashley Lelie did not have to repay an option bonus he received from the Broncos as part of his contract. Lelie, disgruntled with his role on the team, asked to be traded and offered to pay a "hefty amount" to get out of the final year of his contract, according to the Denver Post. However, though Lelie did have to pay back some of the signing bonus, an arbitrator ruled that he earned the option bonus based on his play.
Furthermore, Berthelsen said that a case involving former quarterback Steve Bono and the Minnesota Vikings is another foundation for the union's case. In 1986, Bono and the union were arguing with the Vikings over the payment of a roster bonus. The issue eventually went to arbitration. Bono and the union won when the arbitrator ruled that the roster bonus was performance based.
In the Vick case, the catch to the roster bonuses is that they were converted to fully guaranteed money at the time of payment, according to an NFLPA source. In principal, the roster bonuses were treated as signing bonus for salary-cap purposes. However, Berthelsen said the language in Vick's contract was never changed to call the money signing bonuses.
On Monday, Blank and Falcons general manager Rich McKay said the team would investigate whether to ask for a return of that money. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and ESPN.com reported that the Falcons have sent a letter to Vick seeking at least $20 million in return.
The Falcons had been talking to the NFL Management Council as early as June to discuss options on getting money back, according to two sources.