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Monday, February 18, 2008
NFL Asserts Bias in Judge's Ruling in Vick Contract Dispute

After pleading guilty to federal charges in a dogfighting operation, the Falcons tried to recover about $20 million in bonuses Michael Vick earned from 2004 to 2007. Two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge David Doty ruled that Vick cannot be forced to repay $16.5 million in bonuses under the terms of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, which reversed a decision last November in the Falcons' favor by arbitrator Stephen Burbank. Vick had already received approximately $20 million in bonuses by the Falcons under the terms of the $130 million contract he signed in 2004. However, Judge Doty also ruled that Vick needs to return $3.75 million based on amendments to the CBA.

Last Thursday, it was reported that the NFL is now asking the federal court to vacate Judge Doty's ruling and the NFL also wants to end Judge Doty's jurisdiction over labor matters. The press release reports that "the league argues that Doty's public comments show he is biased against them." According to the AP release:
"Michael Vick breached his contract and cannot play because he was convicted of a felony and is sitting in jail," the NFL said in a statement. "Despite those facts, the judge held that Vick is entitled to keep nearly $20 million in bonus money paid to him for playing football through the 2014 season."

The league also questioned whether Doty, who presided during the 1992 antitrust suit that led to the 1993 labor agreement after six years without a contract, should continue to oversee its dealings with the NFL Players Association.

"No other industry has its labor relations supervised by a federal judge in the way we do, and at this point, after 15 years of labor peace, it is hard to understand why such oversight is necessary or (why it is) an appropriate use of judicial resources," the statement said.

Biased? I find it hard to believe that the NFL is claiming bias here. Judge Doty is, arguably, as neutral and impartial as they come. He is a federal judge who (1) is not a party to the CBA relationship, (2) has not been unilaterally selected by either party to the dispute such that there is a concern for what's known as "institutional bias," and (3) has no incentive, and nothing to gain, by ruling in either party's favor. Although I sympathize with the NFL that 15 years is a very long period with the same decision maker, the NFL has had numerous opportunities over these years to negotiate away Judge Doty's jurisdiction pursuant to arm's length collective bargaining negotiations with the NFLPA. There are no factual issues in this matter; it involves solely a contract interpretation issue. While the NFL disagrees with Judge Doty's interpretation of the CBA, there are no due process concerns here whatsoever.

I can't help but to note how disciplinary matters involving player misconduct are decided in the NFL, and to highlight the irony inherent in the NFL's assertion that Judge Doty is biased. Do you think the Vick contract dispute would have turned out differently if the commissioner was deciding the matter and he also heard the appeal?


Professor Karcher,
Perhaps Judge Doty's most recent ruling will force teams to rethink the way they draw up player contracts in regards to bonuses. Had the Falcons not given Vick the money in the form of a "roster bonus" I have no doubt that the Falcons would be able to recoup a large amount of the bonus money not yet earned. However, by making the bonus contingent on making rosters in 2005, 2006 and 2007, I wonder if the Falcons have handcuffed themselves from recovery. With Article 14 of the CBA prohibiting the forfeiture of money earned, and Burbank's ruling in the Ashley Lelie case (which appears to be opposite from his Vick ruling), I think Vick's money may have been "earned" as of the day the money was paid to Vick for remaining on the roster. I am sure the Falcons structured Vick's contract to pay him a maximum amount of money in the first few seasons while allowing themselves to continue prorating his cap number, but maybe this is a case of buyer beware. In the back of Rich McKay's mind, I imagine he was thinking that Vick would be rewarded early for a promise to perform later by remaining on the roster. However, I wonder if it would have been possible to reward Vick with a "roster bonus" in 2005 that covered 2005-07 seasons, a "roster bonus" in 2006 that covered 2008-10 seasons, and a "roster bonus" in 2007 that covered 2011-13 seasons. Obviously such a contract would need a damages clause that would require Vick to forfeit any portion of a bonus not yet earned. This is just my initial reaction. I am not even sure the CBA would allow such payment, and I have not seen the Vick contract to know whether roster bonuses were awarded every season for the life of the contract.

Anonymous Brad Jones -- 2/18/2008 4:02 PM  

Vick shouldn't have to give up his "signing bonus" because if it was really a "signing bonus" it would have vested when he signed it.


Anonymous Anonymous -- 2/18/2008 9:12 PM  

That is actually not true. "Signing bonuses" can be forfeited under the CBA. Typically a player's contract will say that a player will return the entire bonus if player defaults in year 1, and then a prorated share of the bonus for every year after the inital year that player may default for the duration of the contract. The problem for the Falcons is that the money given to Vick was not a signing bonus. He was awarded for being on the roster, and that is probably why Judge Doty said that Vick's money had been earned.

Anonymous Brad Jones -- 2/18/2008 9:37 PM  

Then it truly wasn't a "signing bonus"

Anonymous Anonymous -- 2/19/2008 8:00 AM  

I think the NFLs posistion would be different if the verdict had been different. I think he shouldn't get to keep the bonus money. He took an action that caused him not to be able to play until the end of contract. That is different then getting cut, or hurt, or something that just happens.

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