The Atlanta Falcons have asked their troubled quarterback Michael Vick to return more than $16 million in bonus money in a case that will be argued in a hearing Thursday, according to sources with knowledge of the case.
The Falcons contend that Vick should return the money because his recent guilty plea to federal dogfighting charges puts him in violation of the 10-year, $130 million contract he signed in December 2004.
But the NFL Players Association will argue in the hearing before the NFL's special master, University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Stephen Burbank, that Vick has already earned the bonus money, which was in the form of roster bonuses, and that under the current collective bargaining agreement reached in March a team cannot retrieve money already earned.
The new collective bargaining agreement between the players and the league says "salary escalators already earned" cannot be subject to being recovered by the team.
Last year, in the case of Denver Broncos wide receiver Ashley Lelie, Burbank ruled that an option bonus fell under that category of "salary escalators already earned." Lelie won that case, which was appealed to the U.S. District Judge David S. Doty, who also ruled in Lelie's favor.
The players association contends that roster bonuses are like option bonuses and may not be recovered by the team once earned.
The Falcons will argue that Vick signed the contract in 2004 knowing that he was in violation of it, and thus defrauded the team. In addition, they will argue that the new collective bargaining agreement went into effect after Vick signed his deal.
Perhaps realizing that Burbank's ruling will be immediately appealed to Doty, who has rarely ruled against a player, the Falcons have also filed a grievance to be heard by the league's non-injury grievance arbitrator, contending that Vick defrauded the Falcons, according to league sources. In that separate case, the Falcons are seeking damages in excess of $22 million. In all, Vick has been paid $29.5 million in bonuses by the Falcons.
In a similar case against Tamarick Vanover, the Kansas City Chiefs recovered an unspecified amount of bonus money.
The grievance will not be heard until after Thursday's case makes it way through the special master and perhaps the federal court.
Sal Paolantonio is a reporter for ESPN.