An arbitrator ruled Monday that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has the authority to discipline New Orleans Saints players for their role in a bounty system.
The NFL Players Association challenged Goodell's power to impose penalties for what the league says was a three-year bounty program that targeted specific players. Stephen Burbank, a University of Pennsylvania law professor, took only five days to determine that Goodell has the power to punish the players under the collective bargaining agreement reached last August to end the lockout.
Goodell suspended Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma for the entire 2012 season and teammate Will Smith for four games. Former Saints defensive end Anthony Hargrove, now with Green Bay, was suspended for eight games, while linebacker Scott Fujita, now with Cleveland, was docked three games.
Those players have appealed the suspensions. And the players' union later Monday said it will appeal Burbank's decision because it believes salary cap violations are involved in the payment. That would give Burbank the authority to rule on penalizing any players involved.
Burbank did, however, retain temporary jurisdiction on Hargrove's role and asked Goodell for more information on Hargrove's "alleged participation."
Burbank "invited the commissioner to clarify the precise basis for his discipline of Mr. Hargrove who, among other things, was found to have lied to the league's investigators and obstructed their investigation," the NFL said in a statement.
The union said in a statement it "believes that the players are entitled to neutral arbitration of these issues under the CBA and will continue to fight for that principle and to protect the fair due process rights of all players." The NFLPA noted Burbank wrote that "nothing in this opinion is intended to convey a view about the underlying facts or the appropriateness of the discipline imposed."
The union filed another grievance with a different arbitrator, Shyam Das, contending the new CBA prohibits Goodell from punishing players for any conduct before the CBA was signed. The league's investigation showed the bounty program ran from 2009-11.
Das has yet to rule on that grievance, which also seeks to have player appeals heard by Art Shell and Ted Cottrell, who are jointly appointed by the league and union to review discipline handed out for on-field conduct.
The league and union have spent plenty of time before arbitrators and judges this offseason, with two other major cases pending.
Vilma has sued Goodell for defamation in a U.S. District Court in New Orleans and Goodell has been given until July 5 to respond to the action.
The players also have sued the league in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, saying the owners colluded in the uncapped 2010 season to have a secret salary cap. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith has said such collusion could have cost players $1 billion in wages.
That lawsuit stems, in part, from the NFL stripping the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys of salary cap room in 2012 and '13. The Redskins had their cap reduced $36 million over the two years and the Cowboys lost $10 million in cap space.
Both teams filed a grievance and lost.