Federal judge rules Vick can keep more than $16 million in bonus money

MINNEAPOLIS -- Jailed quarterback Michael Vick can keep all
but $3.75 million of the nearly $20 million in bonus money he
received from the Atlanta Falcons following a ruling Monday by a
federal judge.

The Falcons sought to recover the bonuses after Vick pleaded
guilty to federal charges in a dogfighting operation. The bonuses
were paid from 2004-07.

A special master ruled in October the Falcons were entitled to
recover the bonuses. The Falcons argued Vick used proceeds from a
contract he signed in 2004 to finance his illicit activities.

The NFL Players Association had asked a federal judge to overturn the special master's decision that Vick should forfeit the bonus money because of his guilty plea.

But U.S. District Judge David Doty of Minneapolis ruled that
recovery of most of the bonus money by the Falcons would violate
the NFL collective bargaining agreement. The agreement does not
allow roster bonus money to be forfeited once it's been earned, the
judge wrote.

Doty, who has handled cases involving the collective bargaining agreement for nearly 20 years, compared interpreting the relevant section of the contract to "alchemy" late last year.

The NFL criticized Doty's ruling. The league has suspended Vick
indefinitely without pay.

"It makes no sense that an individual who willfully violates
his contract is entitled to be paid tens of millions of dollars
even though he is in jail and providing no services whatsoever to
his employer," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in a statement.

Vick's personal attorney, Lawrence Woodward Jr., said Vick was
happy with the ruling but understands there could be appeals.

"He's grateful for some good news, but he realizes he needs to
keep doing all the right things to get back to playing football,"
Woodward said.

At a November hearing, union attorney Jeffrey Kessler contended
Vick's "roster bonus" should be treated the same as a
"performance bonus," which can't be forfeited under the
agreement. The league maintained the roster bonus should be treated
like a "signing bonus allocation," which could be forfeited.

Doty ruled that once Vick made the Falcons' 80-man roster, he
earned the bonus money and the team cannot demand forfeiture.
However, he wrote, the Falcons can recover $3.75 million of his
2006 signing bonus, which is governed by other rules and is
something the union did not challenge.

Kessler welcomed the decision.

"The Players Association is obviously delighted with the
result," Kessler said. "It vindicates our view that a clear deal
was made, that once players earn their compensation, that it is no
longer subject to being taken back."

While the distinction about whether Vick's roster bonuses were
guaranteed or not guaranteed may be important for salary cap
purposes, Doty wrote, "it does not dictate the outcome in a
forfeiture context."

Any money recovered would be credited to Atlanta's future salary

Doty also ruled that the Falcons may not use state law, even in
a grievance procedure, to try to recoup Vick's bonus money.

Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay issued a statement saying
the team is disappointed with the ruling, but that it won't affect
the Falcons' salary cap for the 2008 season.

"Any potential recovery would have only affected our 2009
salary cap," McKay said. "As to our future legal strategies, we
will meet with our legal representatives to more fully understand
our options before making that determination."

Vick received a 23-month jail sentence. He entered a
minimum-security prison in Leavenworth, Kan., last month.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.