Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Elusive Vick Takes His Hardest Hit

Sports of The Times
July 20, 2007

I’ve argued for a number of years that Michael Vick of the Atlanta Falcons is one of the most important players in the N.F.L. His approach to quarterback — with speed, quickness and a rifle arm — makes him, on some days, the most dangerous player on the field. Many of the arguments against the way he plays the game reflect a deeply rooted cultural bias against athleticism at one of the most hallowed positions in sports.

The debate has now moved beyond the playing field, and Vick is facing an unprecedented rush. The federal government is accusing him of not merely crossing the line between good and bad judgment, but of going completely out of bounds.

Earlier this week, Vick was indicted on federal felony charges alleging that he had sponsored dogfighting since 2001, that he frequently gambled on dogfighting and that he authorized acts of cruelty against animals on property that he owned.

An 18-page indictment suggested that Vick was not just a distant spectator sitting on the 50-yard line; he was the quarterback for Bad Newz Kennels.

Now the federal government must prove its case, and Vick has to think long and hard about whether he wants to challenge the government’s evidence or strike a deal.

The pressure also shifts to the N.F.L. and its new law-and-order commissioner, Roger Goodell. Goodell is like a scrambling quarterback approaching the line of scrimmage who must decide: does he run or does he pass? The animal-rights activists — and a number of fans in general — are clamoring for the league to suspend Vick; the players union is ready to fight such a suspension. The owners and N.F.L. sponsors, ever taking the public pulse, are looking for Goodell to suggest a great move that assures the public that the inmates are under control.

So far we’ve been blitzed by cautious statements by the N.F.L., the Atlanta Falcons and the players union about how disappointed they are in Vick, but also how they are committed to letting the legal process run its course.

Nike made a statement yesterday by suspending the introduction of Vick’s latest shoe — the Air Zoom Vick V.

Since he joined the N.F.L. in 2001, Vick’s No. 7 jersey had been among the top-five sellers, according to the N.F.L.

My original position on the Vick investigation is that, for all its validity, it had the earmarks of overzealous federal prosecutors taking on a high-profile athlete. I still feel that way, but my hope is that the investigation and indictment becomes a catalyst — not for a referendum on conduct and African-American athletes — but for a far-flung war on animal fighting. Animal-rights activists say that dogfighting is more popular today than ever.

Yesterday, Senator Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West. Virginia, spoke out against the practice of dogfighting in the United States.

What’s troubling for me, and it should be troubling for all of Vick’s so-called handlers and advisers, is how Vick came to be so close to this fire in the first place. How did one of the N.F.L.’s brightest stars, one of a multibillion-dollar league’s most recognizable faces — indeed, the face of his franchise — become inexorably linked to dogfighting, one of the lowest forms of savagery in modern society?

Guilty or innocent? You wonder. From the Falcons’ executive staff to Vick’s business associates, was there — is there — anyone telling Vick, “You, know Michael, this may not be such a good idea?”

Association can be as devastating as doing the deed itself. That’s certainly the case here.

The Vick indictment is not a pleasant document to read. It describes, point after point, heartless, often barbaric acts of cruelty. During an April raid, law enforcement officials found a stand used to hold dogs in place for mating. They found an electronic treadmill modified for dogs, and bloody carpeting.

Last June, a search uncovered the graves of seven pit bulls that were allegedly killed by members of the Bad Newz Kennels after sessions to test their fighting ability. Documents allege that sometimes dogs were starved, and described how a fight ended when one dog died, or when a dog gave up. According to documents, losing dogs were sometimes put to death by drowning, strangulation, hanging, gunshot, electrocution or body-slamming them to the ground.

“This has become bigger, much larger than Michael Vick,” said Christopher A. Bracey, a professor of law and an associate professor of African-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. “He has become a poster child for animal rights and animal fighting, for conspicuous consumption, for bad judgment and for what happens when you give someone too much too soon.”

How do young, newly created millionaires react when wealth allows them to indulge their dark side? We have to embrace the presumption of innocence, but the sad truth is that no matter what happens now, this indictment has thrown Vick for the greatest loss of his career.



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