By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
ATLANTA -- It caught most of us by surprise, the length of the sentence handed down Monday, when perhaps it shouldn't have. When two of his co-conspirators were sentenced a few weeks back to 18 and 21 months respectively, we should have known Michael Vick wasn't going to get a year or 15 months. He wasn't going to get less jail time than the people who delivered him to the feds. He wasn't going to get less jail time when it was his money that financed the dogfighting enterprise that was his undoing.
Maybe we were caught by surprise because we thought there was still a little bit of influence left in Vick's name, because he reported to jail before it was time, because he's a celebrity athlete and we're accustomed to most people in the culture being lenient when it comes to the rich and famous, or perhaps because the St. Louis Rams' Leonard Little got only 90 days in the city workhouse and four years probation for killing a motorist when driving while drunk, which turned into an involuntary manslaughter plea.
The talk turned, very prematurely we can see now, to whether Vick could be back for the 2009 season, maybe even by minicamp that spring. Clearly, none of this mattered to U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson, who sentenced Vick to 23 months in a federal prison. It was a stunner to digest, from the time assessed to the fact that Vick was dressed in black-and-white prison garb instead of one of his own suits, which a whole lot of hardened criminals are allowed to wear to sentencing. Immediately, it seemed downright excessive and meant to embarrass. More serious crimes yield smaller sentences all the time, every day really. In fact, the entire reaction to Vick's heinous behavior at times has seemed excessive in the context of crimes like rape and manslaughter.
Mike Tyson was convicted of rape, yet he and his crime didn't generate anything close to the outrage of the Vick case. I have no tolerance for what Vick did, from financing the enterprise to actually killing dogs. Jail is where he deserves to be. But have we really come to the point, agitated by the frighteningly influential animal rights lobbyists, where an animal's well-being is more important than a woman's? It's sad if our priorities are that twisted. The reaction to Vick's crime reached a feeding frenzy that seems to ignore all context.
I was reminded by multiple lawyers Monday night, one in my own family, that it needs to be restated that Vick's crime was a federal offense, carrying mandatory sentencing guidelines. There was virtually no chance he'd receive less jail time than his co-conspirators. And it's a near-certainty that Vick, once again, made his own situation worse by lying.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank, drained by the day's ordeal before the start of the Falcons-Saints game, told me just before kickoff that, from all the information he solicited, Hudson "is incredibly thoughtful, bright and fair. And there's information we weren't privy to that drove him to his decision on this." It was impossible to not see the disappointment on Blank's face, like a parent who is angry with his child but in despair nonetheless. On the topic of whether the sentence was excessive, Blank lamented that "Michael had been something less than forthcoming since his plea agreement."
In other words, Vick simply lied too many times. He lied about whether he actually killed any dogs, then admitted to hanging two. Testing positive for marijuana certainly hurt. Vick failed an FBI polygraph and lied about a positive marijuana test in September. In fact, Hudson told Vick in court Monday afternoon, "I'm not convinced you've fully accepted responsibility."
In other words, the early surrender, the public apology, the participation in an animal sensitivity training course might have impressed PETA to some degree, but it was not enough for the judge to outweigh Vick's constant lying, going all the way back to the spring of 2007 when he lied to Blank and to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell about the depth of his involvement. Vick was denied an "acceptance of responsibility" credit that could have reduced his sentence. Reportedly, federal prosecutors opposed giving him the credit.
In other words, every time Vick could have done himself some good, he lied or failed to take responsibility for his actions. Seeing that, Hudson nailed him.
It's fair to wonder now at what point Vick will take responsibility -- and not in some phony public relations way. This doesn't have anything to do with the NFL and what the commissioner's office thinks. It doesn't matter to me at the moment whether Michael Vick comes back as a quarterback or a running back, to the Falcons or Raiders, or whether he comes back at all.
For essentially the next two years Michael Vick will be incarcerated, not free to come and go as he pleases. At some point you have to hope Vick comes to realize the key to his future isn't what Hudson thinks, or what Blank or Goodell or those who will excuse him any act feel, but whether Vick understands that it's going to be difficult to build any kind of tolerable future without coming to grips with his recent past.