Why Was Ndamukong Suh’s Contract Restructured? A Legal Look At His Fine Appeal

Since 2010, Ndamukong Suh has been building a reputation for his brand of football in the NFL.  Unfortunately, it’s a reputation that has proven costly to Suh.  Most recently, Suh was fined $100,000 by the NFL for an illegal block on Minnesota Vikings center John Sullivan in the Detroit Lions’ regular season opener.  The fine marks the highest fine imposed by the NFL against any player that did not involve a suspension.

Shortly after the fine was announced, Suh stated that he would appeal the fine with the assistance of his agents.  What does the appeals process look like?

The basis for the fine against Suh and Suh’s subsequent appeal comes from the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement.  Article 46, section 1 (b) of the collective bargaining agreement provides the league with the authority to levy fines or suspensions against players for unnecessary roughness on the field with respect to an opposing player.

In order to levy a fine or suspension for unnecessary roughness, the NFL must send written notice of the action to the player and NFLPA.  In this instance, the fine was announced a mere two days after Suh’s block of Sullivan.  Notably, prior to enforcing a fine exceeding $50,000, the NFL must meet with the NFLPA’s executive director.  Given the size of Suh’s fine, what that means, is that in this case, DeMaurice Smith knew that the fine was coming before Suh did.

After the written notice is provided to the player and the NFLPA, the player or the NFLPA has three business days to file a written appeal of the fine or suspension, should they object to it.  In this case, Suh filed an appeal.

What kind of arguments can Suh raise on appeal?  Again, the collective bargaining agreement outlines the appeals process.

One argument that Suh and his team may raise as a basis to reduce the fine, is that the fine is excessive.  However, to make this argument, Suh must assert that the fine is excessive when compared to his potential earnings for the season.  Suh is currently signed to a five-year, $68 million contract.  While that is definitely a hefty amount of change–and probably limits his ability to successfully argue that the fine is excessive–an off-season move by Suh may improve his case.

In March 2013, Suh restructured his contract with the Lions to free up salary cap space for the team.  Under the new terms of his contract, Suh will earn $630,000 in base salary this season.  This is compared to the $12.15 million in base salary he was set to earn prior to his contract being restructured.  Suh will still earn the $11.52 million difference in base salary, however, it will be spread out over three years in the form of a signing bonus.  Thus, one has to wonder if the restructuring of Suh’s contract was done not only to lessen his load on the Lions’ salary cap, but to also provide his agents and legal team with a more plausible argument that fines against Suh are excessive.

Given Suh’s history on the field, it will be interesting to see what the NFL does with respect to his appeal.  Will the league make a statement that contrary to what Suh has said on the record, he needs to change his style of play?  Or, will the league reduce his fine?

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