The Atlanta Falcons are entitled to recover nearly $20 million in bonus money paid to disgraced quarterback Michael Vick, an arbitrator ruled Tuesday. The players' union vowed to appeal.

Stephen B. Burbank, the University of Pennsylvania law professor and special master who led last week's arbitration hearing, sided with the team after hearing from Falcons president and general manager Rich McKay and attorneys from the NFL Players Association, which represented Vick.

The Falcons argued that Vick, who pleaded guilty to federal charges for his role in a long-running dogfighting operation, knew he was in violation of the contract when he signed a $130 million deal in December 2004.

The team said he used proceeds from the contract to fund his illicit activities and sought the repayment of $19,970,000 in bonuses he was paid out of a total of $22.5 million in 2005 and '06.

Any money the Falcons recover from Vick would be credited to its future salary cap, a huge step in recovering from the loss of the team's franchise player. Atlanta (1-4) is off to a dismal start with Joey Harrington at quarterback.

"We are certainly pleased with today's ruling," the Falcons said in a statement. "It is the first step in a process that our club has undertaken in an attempt to recoup significant salary cap space that will allow us to continue to build our football team today and in future years."

Vick was suspended indefinitely without pay by the NFL after entering into his plea agreement. He also lost millions in lucrative endorsement deals.

"We have reviewed the decision handed down by Special Master Stephen Burbank and believe it is incorrect," the NFLPA said in a statement. "We will now appeal his ruling."

The case goes to U.S. District Court Judge David Doty in Minneapolis, who still has jurisdiction over the antitrust suit filed by players following the 1987 strike.