What a shame. What a dirty, dreary, dispiriting shame the life and career of Michael Vick have become.
Vick's lawyer announced Monday that the Atlanta Falcons quarterback will plead guilty next week to conspiracy charges in the dogfighting case against him. He'll avoid more serious federal charges, but will likely do some prison time. Speculation ranges from 10 months to something close to the five-year maximum, though most observers are guessing 12 to 24 months. He'll enter the plea Monday.
"Mr. Vick has agreed to enter a plea of guilty to those charges," lead defense attorney Billy Martin said in Monday's statement, "and to accept full responsibility for his actions and the mistakes he has made."
Mistakes? Driving drunk is a mistake, a bad decision. Pulling out a gun instead of walking away from a bar fight. That's a mistake. What Vick did wasn't a mistake. It was a way of life. The illegal interstate dogfighting and gambling operation he's pleading guilty to having run was a going concern for five years.
If we wanted to, we could get into a deep, layered discussion here about cultural values. We could talk about the role of race in attitudes about dogfighting, rural vs. urban sensibilities in the way we look at animals, why it is that this country is home to both a multibillion-dollar pet-pampering industry and entire subcultures built on cruelty to animals, why it is that an athlete's violence against dogs garners a sharper public rebuke than other athletes' far more common violence against women.
We could talk about the cult of celebrity and the cult of the athlete, how someone in Michael Vick's position has been getting his way since he was about 10, how nobody ever stood up to him and told him that he needed to check himself.
But we're not going to. We're just going to talk about what a knucklehead Michael Vick has been.
Vick made Pete Rose look like Albert Einstein here. He has thrown away a career that, even after six years of exciting and occasionally brilliant but overall frustratingly inadequate play, still counted as "promising." He has thrown away the millions he would have made over the rest of his football life, and the Falcons will be coming after some of the millions they've already paid him.
And for what? A dogfighting business. Interstate gambling and cruelty to animals. An enterprise that any idiot -- almost any idiot, evidently -- knows is flamboyantly illegal, that would wreck a professional career nearly instantaneously if uncovered, and that Vick and company took so few pains to hide that authorities collected enough evidence in a raid to get four guilty pleas in less than four months, which is almost fast enough to create a sonic boom.
I don't care about the cultural implications that I can't understand, being a middle-class urban white guy who hasn't been influenced by gangsta hip-hop. Culture can be overcome. If Michael Vick wasn't smart enough to say, "I wish I could do this, but it would cost me my whole career if I did, so I won't," then he just isn't very smart.
It really doesn't matter if his cronies were afraid to speak the truth to him. Some things are just obvious. Vick knew enough to always, except for that one moment when he flipped off a hostile crowd last year, put on a pleasant, smiling face and a charming persona when the cameras were rolling.
If he could figure that out, with or without some Henry Higgins putting him through his social paces, he could have figured out that electrocuting fighting dogs if they didn't fight hard enough, that killing them by slamming them against the ground or hanging them, that training them for the barbarous fights to the death in the first place, was going to end his football career and possibly send him to prison once it got out, and that it would get out.
Vick, who is from Newport News, Va., grew up poor in public housing. He had it rough, but anybody making excuses for him, claiming that he couldn't escape his upbringing, is indulging in the worst kind of noble-savage patronization.
What a rotten shame this is. Not because Vick might have turned himself into an effective quarterback someday and now he won't, but because of the stupidity, cruelty and waste of potential that has become the story of his young life.
Judge Henry Hudson, known as a no-nonsense jurist, will have the final say in Vick's sentencing. He won't be bound by the plea agreement.
But NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will have the final say about Vick's football career, or at least the big-league part of it.
A year into his tenure, Goodell has made it clear he doesn't suffer perps gladly. The most visible part of his new code of conduct has been a crackdown on players who get into trouble off the field. Goodell has issued a series of suspensions, sometimes without waiting for a conviction, in an attempt to ward off concerns that the league had an image problem as bad as that of the NBA.
Goodell sent Adam "Pacman" Jones away for a year in the wake of the Tennessee cornerback being arrested five times between 2005 and this summer. He suspended Cincinnati's Chris Henry and Chicago's Tank Johnson for half a year each in the wake of their various arrests.
Goodell barred Vick from Falcons training camp last month but has asked team owner Arthur Blank not to act -- Blank is surely planning to cut Vick -- until the league finishes its own investigation, which is being conducted by Eric Holder, a former deputy U.S. attorney general.
It's hard to imagine Goodell showing much leniency to Vick. The two met in April and Vick assured the commissioner that he rarely visited the property and knew nothing about dogfighting there. Vick running a gambling operation and lying to the commissioner's face are both violations of the conduct policy, and pretty serious ones at that.
The NFL made pointed reference to Vick's evident lying to Goodell in a statement Monday after the announcement of Vick's plea deal: "We totally condemn the conduct outlined in the charges," the statement said, "which is inconsistent with what Michael Vick previously told both our office and the Falcons."
Since the lurid details of the dogfighting operation have turned Vick into a pariah with most of the public, banning him forever wouldn't be a big public-relations risk for Goodell.
Then again, it might not be necessary. Even assuming a one-year sentence for Vick, then a one-year suspension by the league following that -- both generous assumptions for Vick -- what team is going to sign him to play quarterback for the 2009 season?
I hear you saying, "Oakland Raiders, or if not them somebody else," but I'm not so sure. We're not talking here about some defensive back or wide receiver who can get away with a sullied reputation because he's basically an anonymous guy in a helmet and pads.
The quarterback is the face of the franchise, the guy on the billboards, the leader of the team. If he's not a gem of a guy, you work with that as best you can, but a vicious animal torturer and killer?
That guy had better be a hell of a quarterback.
That sounds facetious, but it's not. Quarterback talent is so rare and precious that teams will put up with a lot to get it. But Michael Vick, for all his crazy athletic ability and his rocket left arm, has never really given any indication that he's going to turn into a true NFL quarterback, as opposed to a gifted runner who lines up under center and can complete some passes, but not nearly enough of them.
If Vick had played like Peyton Manning or Donovan McNabb or even one-year (so far) wonder Vince Young, a team might risk taking on his massive baggage -- animal cruelty and gambling, just for starters, since we're ignoring little things like giving the finger to fans and that bizarre water-bottle incident at an airport this summer.
But why would anyone take on that mess on the off chance that Vick develops into something, after two or more years away, and now approaching or, more likely, in his 30s? Why would a team take it on for a backup, or even to turn Vick into a specialty player, a Kordell Stewart-Antwaan Randle-El-type triple threat? Vick's a special athlete, but there are plenty of great athletes around to stick at wide receiver for the odd trick play.
Vick was already in a tenuous enough spot before he got into trouble. His huge contract and the massive salary-cap hit the Falcons would have taken had they cut him may have been the only things keeping him at the top of the depth chart in the last year or so.
But he was still at the top of the depth chart, and the Falcons had brought in former University of Louisville coach Bobby Petrino to try yet another offensive system that might channel all that talent into actual effective quarterback play. It probably wasn't going to work, but it might have.
But he threw it all away to be the big boss man of a dogfighting ring.
A stupid waste. A dirty shame.
Previous column: DirecTV's new "offensive"
- - - - - - - - - - - -