AS EXPECTED, UNION WILL FIGHT FOR VICK'S MONEY
Though there wasn't much that the National Football League Players Association would have, could have, or should have done on behalf of admitted dog fighter and illegal gambler Michael Vick when it came to the question of whether he should be suspended indefinitely pending federal sentencing, the NFLPA will be resisting the efforts of the Atlanta Falcons to recover from Vick $20 million in previously paid bonus money.
"We believe their case is not valid and we certainly will fight to protect Michael from any action taken by the Falcons," NFLPA general counsel Richard Berthelsen told Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports. "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."
The union's position is not surprising, and many of the details that come off as new information in Cole's article have already been reported elsewhere. Moreover, no one should interpret the move as a sign that the NFLPA thinks that Vick's indefinite suspension is unwarranted. It's simply a question of contract application and interpretation relating to whether money Vick already has received can be recovered by the team after any type of default, whether arising from a holdout, a suspension, or a skateboarding accident.
The NFLPA's position will be that only a portion of the $7.5 million signing bonus that Vick received in December 2004 is subject to recovery, and that $29.5 million in roster bonuses that were converted to guaranteed payments are untouchable.
We've read the Lelie decision (and nearly stayed awake while doing so). In that case, the outcome turned on the question of whether the payment sought to be recovered was a "salary escalator" that was "already earned." For these purposes, a "salary escalator" does not mean the traditional "escalator" term in a contract that pushes a player's base salary in a future year to a higher level if, for example, he catches at least 80 passes in a given season. In the Lelie case, the term "salary escalator" was interpreted broadly to include any amount that drives up a player's total pay.
A signing bonus is not "already earned" because it is advance compensation for future services to be provided. Since an option bonus typically is utilized as a second signing bonus, the fact that an option bonus isn't regarded as compensation for future services but money that is "already earned" makes it pretty clear (to us, at least) that a roster bonus will get the same treatment, regardless of whether it was converted to a guaranteed payment at the team's option.
The practical reality here is that a roster bonus converted to a guaranteed payment operates no differently than an option bonus. Thus, if an option bonus is not subject to forfeiture, a roster bonus should be excluded as well.
So the Falcons will only be able to get the unearned portion of Vick's initial signing bonus. There's a question in our undeveloped minds as to whether the amount is $3.75 million or $5.75 million, since the strict language of Vick's contract could allow the team to get the higher number. Still, it's a far cry from $20 million -- and in the end the recovery realized by the Falcons won't do much to offset the $7.5 million in dead money that the team will carry this year for Vick and roughly $15 million that will be allocated against the team's salary cap in 2008 and (possibly) 2009.