Before any appeal hearings may occur regarding whether four players will be suspended for their alleged role in the Saints’ bounty program, a pair of grievances regarding the manner in which the appeals will be handled must be resolved.
On May 16, arbitrator Shyam Das conducted a hearing on the question of whether: (1) Commissioner Roger Goodell lacks any power to impose discipline on players for conduct occurring before August 4, 2011, the date on which the new labor deal was signed; and (2) the discipline should be reviewed not by Goodell but by Art Shell or Ted Cottrell, the men jointly appointed by the NFL and NFLPA to handle on-field conduct issues.
Das could pull the plug on the entire process by agreeing with the players on that first point (which would be ironic, given that the NFLPA currently is trying to make a collusion claim based on pre-August 4 behavior). If he doesn’t, Special Master Stephen Burbank could force Goodell to start over.
The grievance pending before Burbank arises from the contention that any punishment relating to violations of the salary cap (via paying extra money to players) must be resolved by Burbank under the labor deal. Per multiple sources with knowledge of the May 30 hearing conducted by Burbank, he could void the discipline, if he believes it arises in whole or in part from alleged salary cap violations.
At that point, the NFL would have to choose whether to file with Burbank a claim that players were involved in salary-cap violations, or Goodell could try to fashion discipline on some basis other than the allegation that payments above and beyond a player’s contract were made. Obviously, that would spark another legal challenge from the NFLPA and the affected players.
A decision is expected within a week, and the NFL definitely has reason to worry, at least a little. The letters advising Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, Saints defensive end Will Smith, Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, and Packers defensive end Anthony Hargrove of their suspensions make no effort to distinguish between a pay-for-performance program and a bounty system, instead lumping both together. While the letters claims that the suspensions are based upon conduct detrimental to the game, a pay-for-performance system (e.g., $500 bucks for making an interception) isn’t nearly as detrimental to the game as a pay-for-injury system. By making reference to the pay-for-performance system in the letters, the NFL has fueled the argument that the matter should have been handled by Burbank.
If Burbank compels the league to start over, Goodell will have no choice but to do so, probably by fashioning discipline in a way that avoids Burbank’s salary-cap jurisdiction. And while the suspensions may eventually stick, the notion that the process initially was mishandled would create a major P.R. hit for the league — surely prompting some casual observers to simply conclude (albeit erroneously) that there wasn’t a bounty system at all.
In short, things could get even more interesting, soon.