Former New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress and Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson won their combined grievance against their clubs, allowing them to keep money the teams had sought to recoup after they were suspended last season.
Those victories follow previous rulings in favor of players, setting the stage for an ugly discussion between the NFL and the players union over the future of such grievances.
NFL Players Association general counsel Richard Berthelsen, who argued the grievance on behalf of the players, said Monday that both Burress and Johnson prevailed. Special Master Stephen Burbank heard the case last week and issued his ruling on Monday morning.
"Today’s decision by Professor Burbank … continues an unfortunate trend of permitting players who are suspended due to serious misconduct to nonetheless retain large bonus payments from their NFL teams," the league said in a statement issued by spokesman Greg Aiello. "When clubs pay upfront bonuses as part of a long-term deal, they do it on the assumption that the player’s ability to play will not be limited by his own unlawful activities. For that reason, the Plaxico Burress and Larry Johnson contracts expressly provided that a portion of their bonuses would be repaid if the player was unable to perform due to his own misconduct, as was the case for both players last year.
"Today's decision incorrectly holds that the current collective bargaining agreement bars such provisions. To permit players in these circumstances to retain the entirety of their bonuses, representing millions of dollars, is unfair to both clubs and other players, especially under the current salary cap system."
Burress and Johnson had their grievance heard as a combined issue because the cases were so similar. Burbank's ruling allowed Burress to keep $925,500 in signing bonus and roster bonus the Giants were scheduled to pay him. Burress was released last week by the Giants after a series of run-ins with the team and after an incident in which he accidentally shot himself in the leg in November. The Giants, who suspended Burress for the remainder of the season after the shooting, had sought a revised contract with Burress, but he declined.
As for Johnson, the ruling allows him to keep $520,833 that the Chiefs sought to get back after he was suspended by the league under the personal conduct policy. However, Burbank concluded that the Chiefs are not responsible for Johnson's $3.5 million guaranteed salary next season because he breached his contract after being suspended last season, Berthelsen said.
The teams tried to argue that they should be allowed to keep the money under the loosely defined “conduct detrimental to the club” clause in the standard player contract. However, Burbank ruled that the interpretation was too broad and didn’t apply, Berthelsen said.
“That clause was written, and I was part of that, with the intent to deal with players who hold out from training camp, the preseason or regular season games,” Berthelsen said. “The clubs are now reading that and interpreting it to include any behavior that they deem detrimental. Whether it’s accidental or not, the clubs and the league are arguing that anything that goes wrong is the responsibility of the player. It’s as if when you leave your home and something bad happens, then you were the cause of what went wrong.”
The Giants and the Chiefs declined to comment on the ruling.
As for the league, this decision follows others that have been increasingly annoying to league and team executives. Last year, federal judge David Doty ruled in favor of Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick, allowing Vick to keep $16 million out of almost $20 million that the Falcons sought to recoup after he was convicted of numerous charges related to dogfighting.
The league reacted to Doty’s ruling in the Vick case by filing suit in U.S. District court. The league has sought to have Doty removed from the case, which could have ripple effects in the upcoming negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.