Hearing set on Falcons' attempt to recoup Vick's bonus

Updated: September 12, 2007, 1:16 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

ATLANTA  The arbitration hearing in which the Atlanta Falcons will seek to recover $20 million of the $37 million in total bonuses paid to banished quarterback Michael Vick has been set for Oct. 4.

Arguments in the non-injury grievance filed by the Falcons last month will be heard by NFL special master Stephen Burbank, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and likely in Philadelphia.

A league source with knowledge of the NFL's arbitration procedure said Atlanta officials have been "especially aggressive" in the case and had pushed hard to "fast-track" it, perhaps in an attempt to bring final resolution to the Vick case. It is believed that officials from the NFL Players Association, which will play a role in representing Vick, had sought a later date for the hearing.

It is not yet certain who will represent both sides. Players involved in such cases typically have union representation, often from NFLPA general counsel Richard Berthelsen. Teams often are represented, at least in part, by officials from the NFL Management Council, which is the league's labor arm.

Both sides, however, can have personal attorneys as part of their representation.

Burbank has presided over several high-profile arbitration cases. But given the amount of money involved in this grievance and the notoriety of Vick, who last month pleaded guilty to federal dogfighting-related charges, this one will draw considerable attention.

The Falcons made known their intentions to Vick, who has been suspended indefinitely by commissioner Roger Goodell, in a demand letter sent to him last month.

In terms of recoverable bonus money, the case figures to be a complex one. And it is certainly complicated by an arbitration ruling last November in a case involving former Denver Broncos wide receiver Ashley Lelie -- who, ironically, played for the Falcons in 2006.

In that ruling, an arbitrator stipulated that teams cannot recover option bonuses or prorated shares of option bonuses, and appeared to severely limit the money that teams could recoup if a player defaulted on his contract. Providing even more teeth to the ruling was that the decision by the arbitrator was sealed by U.S. District Judge David Doty, who has jurisdiction over the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFLPA.

Much of Vick's bonus money, $29.5 million of the $37 million, was characterized as roster bonuses in the 10-year extension that he signed on Christmas Eve of 2004. Some experts who have carefully studied the Lelie ruling generally feel that roster bonuses will be viewed as similar to option bonuses if teams attempt to recover them.

That might mean Atlanta would only be able to pursue a prorated share of the initial $7.5 million singing bonus Vick received in three installments as part of his 10-year extension. For salary cap bookkeeping purposes, that signing bonus was prorated over six years, the 2004 through 2009 seasons. Since Vick fulfilled his contract in three of those six seasons, the Falcons might be entitled to only half of the signing bonus money.

Falcons officials have spent considerable time consulting with the NFL's Management Council about their rights to recover bonus money. It appears that the amount Atlanta is seeking is generally based on the remaining prorated shares of the three bonuses paid to Vick on the 2004 extension.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.