University of Pennsylvania Special Master Stephen Burbank agreed with the NFL Players Association that money already earned, such as a signing bonus, can't be forfeited even if a player subsequently gets into trouble, the union's general counsel Richard Berthelsen told The Associated Press.
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"Anything that's earned prior to conduct is the player's to keep," Berthelsen said.
That means the Giants can't recoup $1 million of a $4.5 million bonus Burress earned by signing a contract extension with the team in August, months before he shot himself in the leg at a New York nightclub.
Johnson can keep money he's earned so far, though the Chiefs -- if they release Johnson -- don't owe him future pay after the running back had two nightclub altercations last year. Burbank ruled Johnson has not yet earned $3.75 million in guaranteed salary and bonuses due him over the next two seasons.
The NFL, in a statement released by league spokesman Greg Aiello, disagreed with the ruling, saying it incorrectly interprets the league's collective bargaining agreement. Both players' contracts state that a portion of their bonuses would be repaid "if the player was unable to perform due to his own misconduct," the statement said.
The league said the ruling "underscores a serious flaw in the current system."
"It continues an unfortunate trend of permitting players who are suspended due to serious misconduct to nonetheless retain large bonus payments from their NFL teams," the statement said. "To permit players in these circumstances to retain the entirety of their bonus, representing millions of dollars, is unfair to both the clubs and other players, especially under the current salary-cap system."
The league has no plans to appeal, Aiello said.
New NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith also responded to the decision.
"This decision is a real win for the players. It means that clubs can't impose additional discipline by claiming back signing or roster bonus monies after a suspension, either by a club or the league. The CBA clause they argued from in this case was not intended to apply to suspensions, but instead to cases where a player is holding out from training camp or otherwise refusing to perform. We are very pleased that Mr. Burbank agreed with our position."
Berthelsen said Burbank's decision is in line with the agreement the union negotiated with the league in 2006.
"Our point in the CBA extension is there's no forfeiture of money already paid to the player," Berthelsen said. "A player is subject to forfeiture by some act or conduct. So you have to behave yourself in order to keep the guarantee."
Berthelsen said the only time a team can withhold money earned is if a player withholds his services.
The decision has potential precedent-setting effects and is likely to be an issue when the NFL and union open talks on a new agreement. Owners opted out of the current deal last year.
"To think that a player could carry a loaded gun into a nightclub, shoot himself and miss the rest of the season but get to keep his entire signing bonus illustrates one of the serious flaws in the current system," said Giants president and CEO John Mara.
The ruling likely will influence how the Cleveland Browns handle receiver Donte' Stallworth, who faces charges that he was driving drunk when he killed a pedestrian last month in Miami. Stallworth was due a $4.5 million bonus on March 13, the day before the accident.
Burress, who was cut by the Giants last week, was suspended by the team following the Nov. 28 shooting. The receiver faces a felony weapons charge that could put him in prison for at least 3 1/2 years if convicted. He faces a June 15 court date as his attorneys and prosecutors continue to discuss a plea deal.
Johnson's case was another matter because Burbank ruled the running back has not yet earned $3.75 million in salary and bonuses due him over the next two seasons. Though the money was guaranteed as part of the contract Johnson signed in 2007, the Chiefs aren't obligated to pay the player if they release Johnson and determine he breached his contract for being suspended by the NFL for one game last season. Johnson is still on the Chiefs' roster.
Chiefs spokesman Bob Moore declined to comment on Johnson because team officials are reviewing the ruling.
Johnson's agent, Peter Schaffer, said the ruling does not affect Johnson's standing with the Chiefs, for now.
The NFLPA has a separate grievance pending on what it termed excessive punishment of Burress. The Giants' suspension cost him more than $800,00 in salary and the team also fined him more than $200,000, his single-game salary.
Monday's ruling came amid a report in South Florida alleging Burress hurled profanities at a deputy during a traffic stop on March 18. Burress was ticketed for careless driving in Broward County for allegedly speeding and cutting off other drivers, Broward Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Dani Moschella said.
"Everything that the deputy said was met with profanity," she said.
Moschella said Burress also threatened the deputy that he knew Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti. Moschella said Lamberti has never met Burress.
A call to Burress' attorney was not returned.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press