HE SPOKE WITHOUT NOTES. He said all the right things, in the right order, in the right tone of voice. He apologized to all the right people. He said the word "dog," but only once. The same with "Jesus." He was efficient but not slick—the moment when he said "ashamed" seemed especially genuine—and at the end of the four-and-a-half-minute statement that felt rehearsed but not overrehearsed, he gave his critics nothing to work with and much to rue. For a man who supposedly got into trouble because he was dumb, and who at least one pundit said became a scrambling, freelancing quarterback because he could not remember the plays, Michael Vick conducted one very smart press conference.
This, however, does not absolve him of punishment. For pleading guilty on Monday to a felony charge of conspiracy to sponsor a dog fight, Vick—once the most popular player in the NFL, if you measure in terms of jersey sales (not a bad way to measure)—has apparently lost Nike and jeopardized the rest of his sponsors as well as the $6 million salary he was due to be paid this year by the Atlanta Falcons. The team also wants him to return the $22 million signing bonus from the 10-year, $130 million contract. Now comes the tough part: probably a year to 18 months in prison, to be determined when he is sentenced on Dec. 10. For an athlete in his prime, incarceration isn't just a loss of freedom; it's a diminishing of destiny. His crimes are heinous. But anyone who says Vick is getting off easy hasn't been paying attention.
As if that were possible. If Vick's case has taught us anything, it's that it is dicey to face trouble during a slow news cycle: The crime will expand to fill the available space, and the bloated coverage will begin to shape the principal's fate, for better or worse. To tune in to SportsCenter in recent weeks was to see the quarterback walking stoically into court. Sometimes, between updates on the pennant races and the preseason NFL games, sports journalists and ex-athletes debated Vick's football future (with occasional cutaways to the same court walk). At other times the panelists discussed the complicated role of race in the public vilification of a man that America once put on a pedestal—with cutaways to the court walk.
Eventually the talk turned to redemption. Will NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who has suspended Vick indefinitely, let him back into the league? Will Falcons owner Arthur Blank let him back on the team? Will the rest of us let him back to where we had him before—meaning if not in our hearts, exactly, then in that place of honor where we hold the fastest, the strongest, the most exciting athletes of our time? The answer is obvious. Unless you're O.J. Simpson, redemption in sports is inevitable. For Vick, in fact, the process has already begun. That was obvious outside the Atlanta courthouse where, while Vick entered his plea last Monday, his supporters outshouted the PETA people.
Being opposed by PETA is in itself a canny p.r. move, but Vick will gain redemption not because of who his enemies are but because sports fans always work their way around to remembering that it feels good to forgive. If Vick has fallen further than any athlete before him—further than Pete Rose or Mike Tyson, neither of whom was really the Man You Wanted to Be—that only sweetens the anticipation of his return. The grinding, wall-to-wall coverage of his legal troubles no doubt helps him too. Months before he enters a cell, it feels, somehow, even to those who hate his crime, that perhaps he has already suffered enough.
But has Vick suffered at all, other than financially? At the press conference it was hard to tell. Some on the coverage that followed—fresh court-walk footage!—said he seemed contrite, others disagreed, but no one said "distraught." He was said to have appeared "relaxed" while entering his plea, even as his mother, Brenda Boddie, sobbed quietly. His lawyer Billy Martin said we were seeing "the real Mike Vick" on Monday—but who is that? After all this we still don't know, and that is yet another reason he will surely be back.
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ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN UELAND