By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
We've had a few days to grow accustomed to the notion of Michael Vick going to jail, but it's nonetheless a stunner to hear the actual admission of guilt in the form of a plea bargain. We're now into the meat of one of the most sordid episodes in recent sports history and it's clear that Vick, barring something completely unforeseen, is going to jail. Athletes have run afoul of the law since the turn of the previous century, but it's not often we see the career of someone with Vick's talent, profile and degree interrupted in its prime by a jail sentence. It's possible his career will even be ended by this jail sentence, an NFL suspension and by the contempt with which he'll be held for years after his release.
It's the newest cautionary American tale: Football icon flips American dream on its head. It's so totally overwhelming and wildly extreme it's difficult to know where to begin. Vick is alleged to have not just run a dogfighting ring, which by itself is illegal and heinous, but to have tortured and killed dogs with his bare hands, lied to the man who's paying him $105 million about his involvement and lied to the NFL commissioner's face about his involvement. You wonder what Vick was thinking as the federal government knocked him out in what amounts to less than one round. Could the feds have had a more solid case against him? The dog-killing is such a showstopper, most folks don't even realize the feds could have nailed him for gambling as well.
And now comes the questions we all wonder. How long will Vick be in jail? For how long will the NFL suspend him on top of his jail sentence? Will Vick ever play in the NFL again? Who would take him? What owner could stand there next to Vick and introduce him as the next quarterback of the franchise? What community is tolerant enough to stand for that? Will Vick, who has been so arrogant, so vicious and seemingly without conscience, really be able to convince people over the next couple of years that he's truly sorry?
Some of this we won't know for years, some we'll find out within the next seven days. After Vick officially enters his guilty plea Monday in Richmond, Commissioner Roger Goodell will decide what the NFL will do. The key element in Vick's suspension won't be the length of the penalty, but the amount of time that must elapse before he can be reinstated. Even third-strike drug suspensions that call for a lifetime ban allow for reinstatement after a certain time. There's no reason for Goodell to announce that until after Vick makes his statement of facts Monday and until after the NFL's own investigation, led by former assistant U.S. attorney Eric Holder, concludes.
You wonder if the people who unabashedly apologize for Michael Vick, particularly in and around Atlanta, will see Vick for what he is, for what he's been, or whether they'll continue to give him the kind of cover that allows his brand of arrogance to thrive. You wonder how many of them will come to the conclusion most of us have, that if Vick really did what his co-conspirators said and drowned dogs after trying unsuccessfully to hang them, he's pretty much scum-of-the-earth material.
Back in the spring, when Vick's trouble was with the state of Virginia and not the federal government, Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Goodell asked Vick repeatedly to tell them of his full involvement, to address the allegations head on at the time, before it got worse. But Vick, according to a person with knowledge of such a conversation, told his advisers that law enforcement people couldn't prove he did anything. Vick thought he had stiff-armed his owner, his lawyers and the commish like a bunch of bad tacklers.
Like most people who are arrogant but not particularly smart, Vick overplayed his hand. To get back into pro football -- and there's no guarantee -- Vick is going to have to repeatedly and convincingly demonstrate a level of humility I doubt he's felt a single day in his life. And it has to start between now and Monday's appearance in Richmond.
If he says what arrogant athletes in trouble usually say, that this is behind him and it's time to move on, his penitence will be insufficient. He'd better take the approach, and publicly, that his god isn't finished with him yet and there's a better man at the end of this regrettable process than at the beginning. Vick, clearly a man used to taking what he wants without fear of consequence, had better start begging quite literally for mercy and forgiveness. In public. Every chance he gets. We may be a forgiving culture, but only if people believe the sinner is genuinely contrite.
Of course, Vick has never been any good at these things. He's never been lovable, never been charming or PR savvy. He's rarely extended himself or been engaging publicly. But that's where the rehabilitation of his reputation begins, with doing all the things he thought previously were beneath him.
If he just remains the same old Michael Vick, he's got no chance.
If he does a convincing 180 over the next couple of years, he'll probably have a shot. Or maybe the Canadian Football League is in Vick's future.
In the meantime, I wonder if the high school and college star athletes, the ones who think they're bulletproof, are looking at Vick as a criminal or as a victim. I wonder if they'll study the habits of their friends a little more closely and take a second look at how dangerous "keeping it real" has become. I wonder (and worry) whether Vick, incarcerated and cut loose by corporate (read: white) America will somehow develop a new following and gain a measure of "street cred."
He has been, for at least three or four years, one of the most recognizable players in the league, and, because of his commercial ties, one of the most successful in the history of the league. He'll still be identifiable, by face and by uniform number, and, sadly soon enough, by a prison number.