Justice Dogs Michael Vick and the NFL

by Rick Rockwell

Today, Michael Vick reflects the cliché: it truly is the first day of the rest of his life.

When Vick appears before a federal judge, he will be changed from arrogant superstar quarterback into the don of a sleazy gang of illegal dog fighters and gamblers, seeking mercy before being sentenced to his penance. Doing penance is the next stage of Vick’s life. And he has more than a judge with a stern reputation to deal with now. He must also deal with the wrath of the National Football League (NFL).

Or maybe Vick knows something about the NFL that most won’t admit, and he really only has the judge to worry about. Because the Vick case is a test for the NFL’s new commissioner Roger Goodell and it will set the tone for his tenure at the top of the league.

For those who have been enjoying a sleepy summer away from news (and not just the sports pages), Vick will be formally changing his plea to guilty today on conspiracy charges that he ran an illegal dog fighting operation. As part of his deal with prosecutors, Vick will admit (his lawyers have already filed papers with these admissions) he directed the killing of dogs and killed dogs himself. Vick will also admit to financing illegal betting, although his attorneys have structured his admissions with the NFL in mind, saying he never actually transacted specific bets, leaving that to his co-conspirators. Vick’s superstardom began unraveling when the feds raided a mansion he owns in rural Virginia looking for drugs and instead found more than 60 dogs and the trappings of an illegal dog fighting ring.

Some have tried to defend Vick with various excuses. Some wonder why dog fighting has grabbed the imagination of the public and some say if Vick had been abusing a girlfriend it would have received less attention. Some wonder why dog fighting is a crime at all. Some have said prosecuting Vick is an assault on African-American culture (although it really is an assault on the thug life-style that wants to attach itself to various cultures, and some like Bill Cosby just want to stomp on it like the parasite it is).

Vick’s crimes are indefensible. He murdered dogs with callous disregard of the law (which has been around in many states for at least 150 years) and morality. If the judge follows the plea agreement and sentencing guidelines, he will actually get less than the maximum he deserves: five years and a $250,000 fine.

Will Goodell step up and ban Vick for life from the league once the NFL’s own investigation is over? Not likely. Some are already debating if Vick will be back in pads in 2009 or 2010 or maybe in the back half of 2008. Probably not for the Atlanta Falcons but for some other team in desperate need.

This is because Vick is a fantastic talent who lights up highlight reels. He’s good business for the league. This is the same league with a poor record for disciplining players for violence against women, drugs, and other crimes. In the past, the league has been willing to let millionaire players pay fines (which seem big to the middle class fans until you see the players’ total income) and get along on minor suspensions. Few players are like Adam "Pacman" Jones of the Tennessee Titans who is suspended for all of this season due to his various run-ins with the law. And no player of the stature of Vick has been suspended from the league for more than a year for a very long time.

So will Goodell go with the prevailing wisdom and suspend Vick for the term of his sentence and maybe a few games beyond that for good measure? Or will he step up and set a tone for justice? If Vick is suspended for anything less than the five years he should serve for his crimes then the message is clear: it’s just business as usual in the NFL.

(Editorial graphic from Mike Licht of D.C. via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. More of Licht's work can be found at his website, NotionsCapital.)

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Anonymous said...

Call me totally outside the mainstream on this one but I simply do not get it at all.

Maybe I am simply too industrial. In my job, I have been to slaughterhouses and seens hundreds of pigs and cows killed for our eating pleasure. I know, i know, i know... Vick killed fighting dogs but the dogs are in any case animals and that particular type of dog is bred for fighting.... and is not the cuddly dog we all have with us near the fireplace.

No matter what these are animals not humans. Why is this man being put in prison and why are people saying he should be denied his chance to earn a living in the NFL even after he serves whatever penalty society deems to hang on him? it just seems completely nuts to me.

I cannot help but feel that if he were lilly white instead of a successful black man, that this would all have been swept under the rug somehow.

Rick Rockwell said...

Although this is an anonymous comment, I think it is a brave statement of opinion. These days the folks from PETA or the Humane Society are ready to flambé anyone for defending Vick.

But although this is brave and well-written, I have to disagree.

First, I’ll put my own credentials on the line. I have done my share of reporting on agricultural topics. I’ve been in and out of the process of how food gets made on farms and in slaughterhouses. It isn’t pretty. (Perhaps we can discuss my investigative series on bulk beef buying sometime.)

But there’s a big difference. Those who train dogs for fighting aren’t killing animals so they can be eaten. They are mistreating animals for entertainment. Please note laws calling for the humane treatment of animals arose in the 19th Century, partially in response to a societal call for the ethical treatment of animals. Dog fighting inflicts obvious pain and death merely for entertainment, and so even hundreds of years ago civilized society realized such entertainment should be curtailed if not eliminated. And these laws were also extended to the treatment of horses and other domesticated animals so they would not be abused in their labors for their masters.

So excusing all the pain and death associated with dogfighting is a rather 18th Century view of how animals should be treated.

Also, this is not a racial issue, although some have used race as a smokescreen to defend Michael Vick. The biggest prosecutions of dogfighting rings in South Carolina or Louisiana are going after these operations regardless of race, and the operations in those states dwarf Vick’s enterprise. However, Vick’s story received so much coverage because he is a multi-millionaire celebrity sports endorser who got caught participating in illegal gambling and dogfighting. More whites have traditionally taken part in dogfighting than blacks, and authorities didn’t target Vick. They stumbled into this as part of a drug investigation.

Even the acting head of the NAACP notes that he doesn’t feel Vick was singled out for his race and that because he could afford good lawyers, may have negotiated a plea that would be far different if he was not a celebrity athlete.

Which brings us to Vick’s responsibilities to society, something that seemed to have just dawned on him when he admitted his guilt. If someone is going to make millions off of endorsing products and playing games, they owe something back to their communities and to society at large. What Vick has discovered is that at a certain level in the NFL, he must have credibility, otherwise his endorsements are meaningless. This is why it was a big deal when he flipped off fans last year and why his poor example of wanting to live a secret thug life shows his immaturity and that he didn’t understand his greater responsibilities.

And let’s leave the dog-fighting aside for a moment, although all of Vick’s activities connected to that were truly heinous… yes, I’m using that word in proper context not in its overused slang configuration. Vick has admitted to participating in an illegal gambling operation. Isn’t Pete Rose banned from baseball because of gambling and his lies about it? Sure, Vick didn’t bet on football, but how can we trust him to tell us the truth about gambling in the future? With basketball enduring its worst betting scandal ever, the NFL won’t be sending a weak message about anyone who placed illegal bets. The commissioner will likely make an example of Vick for that matter alone, and there is precedent for it in football (remember the NFL players who were suspended for gamblingin the 1960s including the huge star Paul Hornung?) and other sports.

What we know is the league reacts strongly to anyone involved in illegal gambling, and that those suspensions have come regardless of race. Vick’s added twist of running an illegal dogfighting operation too just adds fuel to the fire. We know he will be out of the NFL for at least two years, given the courts schedule for sentencing and the minimum he agreed to serve. Even if the commissioner slaps on an additional year of penalties, that is far from the 40 years that one man in South Carolina got for running what was the second largest dogfighting operation in the country. So by those standards, Vick’s potential penalties, even if they extend to five years, seem fair.

Anonymous said...


Appreciate your post, I find you to be a balanced and fair person.

I just wanted to add a few comments. First, banally, I post as anonymous because i am too lazy to sign up to the site but now that you mention it, my position is one that I might prefer remain anonymous in George Bush's free American.

OK back to the subject.

first, having long lived outside the US I try to take a global picture of culture so yes, from an American point of view, my view on pit bull dogs and their treatment might be straight out of the 18th century but if you take a look at the entire population of the earth, I think more than 50% of the worlds 6 billion people would agree with me on Vick's treatment here.

I also dug deeper into some of the links you posted. They are not entirely fair. For example, the article on dog fighters being prosecuted in south carolina pointed out mainly dropped and lost cases. The one gent who went to prison for 40 years was not only convicted for dog fighting. The convicted man, Mr. David Tant had also planted mines on his property to keep enquiring minds off his property and my chance one of his land mines maimed a land surveyor (yes the land surveyor was in fact a human being)

on race, it really is my gut and I cannot contest your correct points, but there just seems a visceral need for white america to publicly lynch a black man every now and then and this feels like that to me.

I cannot argue with the fact that Vick violated US law, but I still think it absurd the degree to which he is being publicly hung out to dry and likely sent off to prison

Rick Rockwell said...

Just to clarify:

Tant’s sentence, as discussed here was 20 years for assault and 20 years on the dogfighting charges, but that is still four times longer than the maximum sentence Vick would face.

Although the British were the global leaders in outlawing dogfighting, as discussed here some in the British media supported the illegal activity in the 19th Century, decades after it was banned.

As for globally, National Public Radio tells us that dogfighting is legal in Japan, Russia, and perhaps even Afghanistan, but in most parts of the world it is banned. However, those laws are not enforced in many places and open air illegal dogfighting is not a rarity in some countries despite the law.

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