Michael Vick is nervous, more nervous than he ever was in the NFL. He sits across from commissioner Roger Goodell, both men dressed in tasteful, conservative suits. This is nothing new for the commissioner. Over the last three years Goodell has met with other players who fell out of line. And he has even met with Vick before, a session in late April 2007 when Vick denied having anything to do with the goings-on at 1915 Moonlight Road in Smithfield, Va. Then, three months later, he was charged with one count of dogfighting.
It's late July now, and Vick has recently completed a 23-month federal sentence that included a long stretch at Leavenworth and finished under house arrest at his five-bedroom home in Hampton, Va. And while, unlike a pit bull thrown into a ring, Vick may not be fighting for his life, he is fighting for his future. He is not sure how, but he knows he must show deep remorse for what he has done. That is what Goodell is looking for as he stares into Vick's eyes.
While Goodell has not tipped his hand, the NFL's personal conduct policy gives him wide latitude. He can show lenience toward Vick. He can also lay down the hammer. "Discipline may take the form of fines, suspension or banishment from the League...," it reads. "The specifics of the disciplinary response will be based on the nature of the incident, the actual or threatened risk to the participant and others, any prior or additional misconduct (whether or not criminal charges were filed) and other relevant factors."
So how do these words apply in the Vick case? And what are his prospects of making it back on the field for the 2009 season and continuing a career that's been both erratically spectacular and spectacularly erratic? Since taking over for Paul Tagliabue in September 2006, Goodell has vowed to crack down on miscreants and lawbreakers, saying that representing the NFL is a privilege, not a right. He backed that up in April 2007 by making the personal conduct policy tougher and at the same time suspending Tennessee Titans cornerback Adam Jones for the entire 2007 season and Cincinnati Bengals wideout Chris Henry eight games for multiple run-ins with police; of such penalties, Vick should be wary. But if the commissioner takes into account Vick's time served and financial loss versus the relatively light punishment doled out to other athletes who committed various criminal acts, then Goodell's ruling should be this: Michael Vick is reinstated to the NFL, and—if the quarterback does not violate the conditions of his supervised release—he is allowed back soon.
Vick's systematic cruelty to animals makes the nature of the incident novel among athletes—but that doesn't necessarily make it worse than more common forms of their criminal behavior. Many players, from subs to stars, have remained in uniform despite committing a range of felonies, including sexual assault, drug trafficking, armed robbery, gun possession, gambling, domestic violence and various automobile-related offenses that include manslaughter.
Consider Washington Nationals outfielder Elijah Dukes, whose rap sheet includes at least six arrests since 1997. (There was no arrest for an alleged voice mail to his estranged wife threatening to kill her.) Dukes pleaded no contest to a battery charge in one case and to marijuana possession in another; the other charges were dropped or are sealed. Yet he has never been disciplined by Major League Baseball for his off-field behavior, and at least publicly, the only organizational condemnation (including a $500 fine) was triggered when Dukes showed up late for a team workout earlier this season. (He was coming from a paid Little League appearance.)
Or consider those whose transgressions have cost human lives. In October 1998, St. Louis Rams defensive end Leonard Little, his blood-alcohol content nearly twice the legal limit, crashed into another car, killing its driver, a married woman with a 15-year-old son. The team placed Little on paid leave for the rest of the season, after which he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. He received a 90-day sentence, which could be served at a work house at any time within a 12-month period. The NFL suspended him for the first eight games in 1999 for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
Denver Nuggets guard J.R. Smith racked up five suspensions of his license for speeding and reckless driving in one year—and that was before he ran a stop sign in June 2007 and was struck by an oncoming vehicle, killing his best friend, Andre Bell, a passenger in the back seat. But Smith was never indicted for vehicular homicide, and though his license was suspended because of the accident and twice thereafter, he has never been suspended by the NBA for a behind-the-wheel offense. (That may change, however, after a New Jersey municipal judge last week sentenced Smith to 30 days in jail for reckless driving in the '07 accident.)
In September 2003 the reckless driving of Dany Heatley, then a star for the Atlanta Thrashers, caused a crash that killed teammate Dan Snyder, a passenger in his Ferrari. Heatley, who pleaded guilty to second-degree vehicular homicide, received a sentence of three years' probation. He missed all but 31 games of the 2003--04 season but only because of the knee injury he suffered in the accident. The NHL did not penalize him.
Snyder's family offered forgiveness and asked for lenience for Heatley; likewise, the family of Bell remained steadfastly in Smith's corner, saying, "Our hearts and respect go out to J.R. and his family." When those who have lost the most are asking for mitigated punishments—in acceptance of the fact that the deaths were accidental—isn't it more difficult for the leagues to assume a hard-line stance?
Of course, there are no relatives of the victims of Vick's barbarity to offer such pleas of mercy, but there's another question in his case: Shouldn't the punishment he has already served be an even greater argument for mitigation? Unlike Smith and Heatley, it can't be said that the QB has gotten off lightly. He pleaded guilty to a felony, dogfighting conspiracy, and served the full sentence. He paid $928,000 in restitution for the care of the confiscated dogs. He lost two years in the prime of his career, at a cost of $40 million in salary, bonuses and endorsements. He has filed for bankruptcy. When Goodell makes his ruling, it would seem those would come under the heading of relevant factors.
There is another adjudicating body the commissioner will no doubt consider as he selects his disciplinary response, one not listed in the NFL's conduct policy: the court of public opinion. The most prominent voices speaking to the Vick case are still those from PETA and the SPCA, and it's not mercy they want. "[Vick] should be given a brain scan that will show if he's capable of remorse," says Ingrid Newkirk, the president of PETA, adding that the National Institute of Health has shown that there's an area of the brain that relates to empathy. "If the NFL is going to consider him, they owe it to themselves to find out if he's capable of remorse. Without that, you don't know if I'm sorry are just words or mean anything. If he can't show empathy, he shouldn't come back."
Vick's first act of self-preservation—lying to police, reporters and Goodell by saying he was unaware of the dogfighting operation on his property—was a serious misstep. But as the facts became harder to deny and codefendants started to flip, he owned up and began to lay the groundwork for forgiveness. Following his guilty plea in U.S. District Court in Richmond in August 2007, he apologized, saying, "I take full responsibility for my actions," and asserted that "dogfighting is a terrible thing." He specifically addressed "all the young kids out there" and said he was sorry for his "immature acts." He also asked "for forgiveness and understanding as I move forward to bettering Michael Vick the person, not the football player."
The evidence is overwhelming that, should Goodell reinstate Vick and should Vick continue to be contrite, the football player, at least, will be forgiven by his fans. Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Brett Myers was arrested and charged with assault and battery after he punched his wife on a downtown Boston street while they argued in June 2006. Myers's wife not only posted his bail but also insisted that she didn't want him prosecuted. The charge was subsequently dismissed over the objection of the prosecutor. But what Philadelphia fans remember is that Myers pitched strongly in the last half of the 2008 season as the Phillies went on to win the World Series.
In Vick's case habeas corpus—literally, you must have the body—takes on new meaning. He's an extraordinary athlete, even by NFL standards, and at 29 he has a better-than-even chance of helping some franchise for several years. (The Atlanta Falcons, for whom he played six seasons, released him on June 12.) Assuming Vick's not horribly out of shape, his speed, elusiveness and arm strength (if not his accuracy) will no doubt entice a team or two to give him a look, especially with the high demand for run-pass threats to pilot the trendy wildcat offense.
"It only takes one team to sign him, and he's back playing," says Andrew Brandt, a former executive with the Green Bay Packers, now a lecturer in Penn's Wharton Sports Business Initiative. "But it would be an organizational decision. The owner, the coaches, the community relations department. It would not be taken lightly."
Wherever Vick lands—and the four-team United Football League, which debuts in October, is holding a spot for him in Orlando—protestors are likely to land there with him. But if Vick is successful, it's a safe bet that the outrage expressed on blogs, on talk radio and outside his new team's facilities won't be echoed inside the home stadium. NBA guard Latrell Sprewell was a coach-choking thug in the Bay Area until he brought his 20 points a game to New York, where suddenly his jersey flew off the shelves as he led his team to the Finals. Nor will Vick have much to fear from the men in the lockers next to him. For all the Sturm und Drang about bad behavior in sports, you will seldom if ever hear an athlete take a stand against a teammate, no matter how repugnant an act that teammate might have committed. "It ain't that you don't care about the crime," says New York Mets outfielder Gary Sheffield, speaking about Vick. "There are dog lovers, and you feel compassion for that. But when he steps into this room, he's my teammate and I'm going to do whatever it takes to support him. That's what teammates are for. You become a family."
As one Phillies veteran puts it, "In the middle of the game you're not out there thinking, He killed dogs."
Vick's instances of prior or additional misconduct? They have been few, and one case was apparently overblown. In January 2007, four months before Bad Newz Kennels became big news—and a few months after he made headlines for flipping off Falcons fans who had booed him—Vick was stopped by Miami International Airport security officials, who seized a water bottle from him that smelled like marijuana and had a hidden compartment. Testing on the bottle revealed no trace of drugs, and Vick later explained that the compartment was for hiding jewelry.
Since taking office, Goodell has suspended 15 players for violations of the NFL's personal conduct policy, with infractions ranging from disorderly conduct to assault. In December 2006, police found six unregistered firearms in the suburban Chicago home of Bears defensive lineman Tank Johnson, a violation of his probation on a 2005 gun charge. He spent 60 days in jail and was suspended for eight games. Following Adam Jones's yearlong suspension in 2007—the harshest sentence under the personal conduct policy of Goodell's tenure—he was suspended again last October for six games. Nevertheless, Johnson and Jones found a team that could use their services: the Dallas Cowboys.
Like Vick, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte' Stallworth is serving an indefinite suspension. At 7:15 a.m. on March 14 in Miami, Stallworth fatally struck 59-year-old Mario Reyes with his Bentley. Reyes was rushing to catch a bus. Stallworth's blood-alcohol count was .126, well above the legal limit. He is serving 30 days in jail after pleading guilty to DUI manslaughter last month and paid an undisclosed sum to compensate Reyes's family.
It's safe to say that, should Stallworth and Vick have their suspensions lifted, the outcry over Vick's return will be far more voluble. Yet in weighing the actual or threatened risk to the participant, doesn't Stallworth deserve the harsher treatment from the public, if not Goodell? Yes, Vick engaged in an extended, heinous act that inflicted cruelty on dogs. But who needs to be taught another lesson? Who is the more likely recidivist? The dogfighter who served a 23-month sentence, including 17 in Leavenworth, or the drunken driver who killed a pedestrian and served 30 days?
Should Goodell reinstate Vick, one thing in the player's favor as he tries to mend his image is that Sports Nation loves to read the reformed athlete narrative, and sportswriters love to write it. J.R. Smith killed his best friend? Hey, that's in the past. SMITH LEAVES TROUBLES BEHIND, MATURES INTO THREE-YEAR DEAL, read a headline in the now defunct Rocky Mountain News last August. DUKES' PAST HAS PASSED, read a recent Tampa Tribune headline about the outfielder. Convicted rapist Mike Tyson is the subject of a sympathetic and well-received documentary and a scene-stealer in the hit movie The Hangover. Deep down, there's a willingness to suspend cynicism and a desire to root for these guys.
When Goodell sits down with Vick, there will be stern admonishments by the commissioner, sober mea culpas by the player and, at some point, when Vick signs a contract, guardedly hopeful talk of second chances by the new team. And what will the fans' response be? We hope he's reformed, we hope he's sincere, we hope to hell he doesn't mess up again. But what we really hope is that Michael Vick gives us our thrills on those magical Sunday afternoons this fall.
Now on SI.com
George Dohrmann on why Michael Vick shouldn't be back in the NFL at SI.com/bonus
Brett Myers was arrested after he punched his wife (left). The assault charge was dismissed, and what Phillies fans remember is that he helped win a World Series.
Browns receiver Donte' Stallworth is serving 30 days in jail for DUI manslaughter. Doesn't he deserve the harsher treatment from the public, if not Goodell?
If I Were Goodell ...
A cross section of recommendations on what the NFL commissioner should do with Michael Vick
"It's a no-brainer. I'd let him play. He's been punished already—in my view, excessively. They have no right to extend his punishment. It would be denying the right to an occupation."
Alan Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
"If I did time for a serious crime, I doubt I could sashay back into my job as a cable-TV news host. There is the legal penalty and then there's the societal penalty. Let's not confuse the two."
Jane Velez-Mitchell, HLN network host
"What if 20,000 members of the SPCA show up to picket a game? I think Mike should be allowed back, but I also see the other side, that you have to win in the court of public opinion."
Ronde Barber, Buccaneers cornerback
"It's up to the commissioner, but everyone should get a second chance. He shouldn't be made a total pariah. If he's reformed, he should have a chance to set a better example."
Paul De Santis, lawyer and adopter of a Vick pit bull
"Let's see, Leonard Little got drunk and killed another human in a car accident. He served 90 days in jail and got suspended for eight games. Vick was cruel to some dogs. He went to jail for a year and a half. And we're wondering if Vick can play in the NFL? Please."
Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers
Illustration by JOSEPH ADEL
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