Scrambling For His Reputation

By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Until now, Michael Vick has treated bad judgment like a poor tackler. He'd feint, or sidestep, or dance away. A suspicious water bottle at airport security? Somebody will take care of it. Mike will outrun a water bottle, even one with a secret compartment. Until now, Vick tried to make us believe he had nothing to do with illegal dogfighting, even if it took place on property he owned. Until now, Vick would smile and say he didn't want to let his coaches and teammates down. Vick's boss in Atlanta, Arthur Blank, and the commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, would tell Vick to come clean, tell them what he knew, deal with it all straight up. And Vick would jab-step, move, throw the spin move on everybody . . . until now.

Vick has been indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with a dogfighting probe, and his career is in serious trouble. No burst of speed is going to get him out of this one. There are no linemen to follow toward the pylon.

David Cornwell, the noted sports lawyer and president of the Atlanta-based law firm DNC Cornwell, said yesterday after the indictment was handed down: "This is bad. You'll hear people say there's always the presumption of innocence, but it's a lot better to be innocent and uninvolved than innocent and indicted. He put a $100 million business at risk. At the very inception of this investigation, he should have considered all the risks and, based on that, marched himself into law enforcement and explained what happened."

But he didn't, and Vick now is exposed to, however remote, the possibility of jail time.

Immediate speculation, in the wake of recent NFL suspensions for criminal behavior, will center on whether Goodell will suspend Vick, how quickly and for how long. The institutional message coming from the NFL during Goodell's short tenure has been that criminal conduct will not be tolerated. Said Cornwell, who worked as assistant general counsel in the NFL in the late 1980s and with Goodell: "One thing I'm certain the commissioner will not do is impose a punishment which would have impact on the criminal proceedings. You have to balance the new standard with not impacting due process, whether the concern is poisoning either the jury or the proceedings."

Still, even if a suspension isn't immediately forthcoming, Vick is in trouble, and if he doesn't know it his owner certainly does. Two months ago, Blank told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "What [Goodell] will do about it, I'm not sure, but he's not going to take it lightly. He's got Michael on his radar and I think he made that clear to Michael as well." Blank said he himself "could not have been more stern" in talking to Vick about the dogfighting allegations and Vick's repeated bad judgment, including flipping fans the middle finger when leaving the field last November. "I told him, 'You represent us as a franchise, you represent yourself as a person and you represent the NFL.' " Blank said. "It's not one single thing; it's a series of things."

This isn't the same as Pacman Jones being suspended for the upcoming season for his involvement in 10 incidents in which he was interviewed by police. This isn't the same as Tank Johnson being suspended for eight games for violating probation on a gun charge. This isn't the same as Chris Henry being suspended for eight games after being arrested four times in 14 months. It's worse. A lot worse. If Pacman Jones walked into your living room this minute wearing his Titans jersey, you wouldn't have any idea who he is. In the larger scheme of NFL business, Pacman is nobody. Same goes for Johnson, whom the Bears recently cut. And for Henry.

In a faceless league, Vick is one of the few NFL faces that registers. Favre, Brady, Peyton Manning, T.O., McNabb, Vick. That's the short list. Nobody knows Pacman. Everybody knows Vick. "There's a dramatic difference between an NFL player and an NFL quarterback," Cornwell said. "The significance a quarterback has to his team and to the league is tremendous."

You want to know how big this is in a football sense? The Falcons, clearly betting on Vick's availability, let their very capable backup, Matt Schaub, go to the Houston Texans. Bobby Petrino, a rookie head coach coming from the college ranks, was building his system around Vick's talent. Oops.

Vick would look you straight in the eye and tell you he understood all this responsibility, but his actions say he didn't. He wanted to slick his way out of it, and so far that hasn't worked.

Vick could well be cleared of the charges. It could be he didn't know what was going on at the house he owned, even if people think he should have. It could be the whole thing is overstated, that the evidence won't be nearly as convincing to a jury as it was to a grand jury, and that Vick will end up outrunning this, too. That's the best-case scenario. If we learned anything from the case of the accused Duke lacrosse players, it's to not jump to conclusions based on charges that have yet to be proved.

But Cornwell's point is, if you're Vick, why not do everything imaginable to avoid risk? If nothing else, Cornwell said: "It's yet another example of a young man who plays professional sports, pro football in particular, getting bad business advice. Michael knew what his involvement was when he made his first public comments, and when the investigation began. His contract is for $105 million. Why would you put everything at risk? There are cultural influences, too. But is it 'keeping it real' to put a $100 million business at risk? Is it worth embracing the risk over opportunity? We're not talking about a guy making minimum salary."

Cornwell, a Washingtonian who attended Sidwell Friends and Georgetown Law, now lives in Atlanta. He noted driving past billboards in and around Atlanta with Vick featured in ads for an airline, for a wireless company. Vick also is a Nike-sponsored athlete. "When your ultimate employer, the commissioner, says criminal behavior will not be tolerated," Cornwell said, "the big sponsors' analysis is, 'Why are we continuing to align our products and services with this person to generate exposure and sales if the commissioner won't tolerate him?' "

Whether Vick is guilty or not, the Falcons now will be disrupted. Vick's life will be disrupted. You can't just fly in for hearings and play, the way Kobe Bryant did -- not in the NFL, where life on the field is more complicated and where owners and league executives are much less tolerant. Vick, plain and simple, is in a mess, the kind that will require a lot more than quarterback skills to get out of.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company