ATLANTA -- Representatives from the NFL Players Association will argue Friday in a federal district court that an arbitrator erred last month in ruling that the Atlanta Falcons can attempt to recover nearly $20 million in past bonuses paid to banished quarterback Michael Vick as part of the landmark 10-year, $130 million contract extension he signed in 2004.
The appeal of last month's ruling will be heard in Minneapolis by Judge David Doty, who has jurisdiction over matters relating to the NFL collective bargaining agreement.
On Oct. 10, special master Stephen B. Burbank, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania school of law, ruled in favor of the Falcons, who filed a non-injury grievance against Vick after he pleaded guilty to federal dogfighting charges. Suspended indefinitely by the NFL, the seven-year veteran quarterback faces sentencing on Dec. 10, but has already entered a federal facility in Virginia.
"The NFLPA believes that Burbank's ruling was erroneous" in permitting the Falcons to pursue $19.97 million in bonus money, the union said in a statement, and it filed for an expedited appeal in front of Doty.
At issue is $16.22 million in roster bonuses the Falcons paid Vick as part of $37 million in total bonuses that were a part of the extension he signed on Christmas Eve 2004.
In his nine-page ruling, Burbank said that the Falcons could recover $13.5 million of the $22.5 million that Vick received in a roster bonus paid out in 2005-2006. He also ruled that Atlanta could recover $2.72 million of the $7 million roster bonus that the Falcons paid Vick this spring.
But the NFLPA, likely citing a prior case involving former first-round draft choice Ashley Lelie, will contend on Friday that, because the bonuses paid Vick were not signing bonuses, he cannot be compelled to return even a portion of them. The Lelie case was brought by the Denver Broncos, who originally drafted him. Lelie now plays for San Francisco.
Recovering the bonus payments from Vick is critical to the Falcons, since the money would be credited to the team's future salary caps, as early as 2008. Team officials have reiterated that they plan to use that money to pursue veteran free agents or extend the existing contracts of players already on the Atlanta roster.
ESPN.com reported last month, though, that to receive credit for the Vick bonus money, the Falcons must literally recover it from him. In essence, Vick would have to fund the rebate by writing the Falcons a check.
Even though Vick's representatives have insisted he has substantial financial wherewithal, much of it liquid, three different banks have filed lawsuits against him and various partners in recent months, claiming he defaulted on loans.
Vick earlier this week agreed to deposit $928,073 into an escrow account controlled by his attorney, Billy Martin, to cover the care of the 54 pit bulls that were seized from the property he formerly owned in Virginia.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com