ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons are entitled to recover nearly $20 million in bonus money paid to disgraced quarterback Michael Vick, an arbitrator ruled Tuesday. The players' union vowed to appeal.
Stephen B. Burbank, a University of Pennsylvania law professor and special master who led last week's arbitration hearing, sided with the team after hearing from Falcons president and general manager Rich McKay and attorneys from the NFL Players Association, which represented Vick.
The Falcons argued that Vick, who pleaded guilty to federal charges for his role in a long-running dogfighting operation, knew he was in violation of the contract when he signed a $130 million deal in December 2004.
The team said he used proceeds from the contract to fund his illicit activities and sought the repayment of $19,970,000 in bonuses he was paid over the last three years.
Any money the Falcons recover from Vick would be credited to its future salary cap, a huge step in recovering from the loss of the team's franchise player. Atlanta (1-4) is off to a dismal start with Joey Harrington at quarterback.
"We are certainly pleased with today's ruling," the Falcons said in a statement. "It is the first step in a process that our club has undertaken in an attempt to recoup significant salary cap space that will allow us to continue to build our football team today and in future years."
In a highly technical, nine-page ruling, Burbank said the Falcons were entitled to $3.75 million of the $7.5 million bonus that Vick was paid after signing the deal in 2004, $13.5 million of the $22.5 million in roster, reporting and playing bonuses he was paid in 2005 and 2006, and $2.72 million of the $7 million roster, reporting and playing bonus that he received this year.
Burbank wrote that his ruling in a bonus dispute involving former Denver Broncos receiver Ashley Lelie did not apply in Vick's case.
Last year, the arbitrator ordered the Broncos to repay $220,000 to Lelie, who reportedly had to give up about $1 million in fines, lost bonuses and a prorated portion of his signing bonus to get out of the final year of his Denver contract after a dispute over playing time.
Vick was suspended indefinitely without pay by the NFL after entering into his plea agreement. He also lost millions in lucrative endorsement deals.
"We have reviewed the decision handed down by Special Master Stephen Burbank and believe it is incorrect," the NFLPA said in a statement. "We will now appeal his ruling."
The case goes to U.S. District Court Judge David Doty in Minneapolis, who still has jurisdiction over the antitrust suit filed by players following the 1987 strike.
If upheld, the decision would be a further strain on Vick's finances.
He already has been sued by an Indiana bank that claims he failed to repay at least $2 million in loans for a car rental business, and by a Canadian bank that claims he owes more than $2.3 million for real estate investments.
Of course, Vick has more troubling issues to deal with than cash-flow problems. He'll be sentenced Dec. 10 in the federal dogfighting case and is expected to get at least a year in prison. He's also facing felony dogfighting charges in Virginia, which carry possible sentences of up to five years each.
In addition, Vick tested positive for marijuana last month, drawing the ire of the judge who will be sentencing him in December. U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson ordered Vick confined to his Virginia home between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. with electronic monitoring. He also must submit to random drug testing.
Vick's stunning downfall began in late April when authorities conducting a drug investigation of Vick's cousin raided property that Vick owns in Surry County, Va. Officers seized dozens of dogs, most of them pit bulls, and equipment associated with dogfighting.
Vick initially denied any knowledge of the enterprise, then pledged after he was charged that he would fight to clear his name.
After his three co-defendants pleaded guilty, Vick followed suit in late August and admitted to bankrolling the enterprise and participating in the killing of eight dogs that performed poorly. In his only public comment since the admission, Vick took responsibility for his actions and asked for forgiveness.
"I offer my deepest apologies to everybody out there in the world who was affected by this whole situation," he said, "and if I'm more disappointed with myself than anything it's because of all the young people, young kids that I let down, who look at Michael Vick as a role model."