Thursday, July 26, 2007

Michael Vick, Arthur Blank, the Atlanta Falcons and Camp Chaos

The Atlanta Falcons open their training camp today in Flowery Branch, Georgia. At the same time in Newport News, Virginia Michael Vick will face federal charges for participating in for-profit dogfighting related businesses since 2001. While they’ll be a full complement of football media covering the first day of Falcons camp, local, regional and national news and to a lesser extent sports media will crowd in the courthouse Newport News.

"While it is for the criminal justice system to determine your guilt or innocence, it is my responsibility as commissioner of the National Football League to determine whether your conduct, even if not criminal, nonetheless violated league policies, including the Personal Conduct Policy," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a letter to the quarterback earlier this week making it clear Michael Vick was to be no where near the Falcons camp for the foreseeable future.

And Goodell made it clear, while Vick is on paid leave from the Falcons he’s biding his time before he takes the gloves off. And that process begins with the NFL hiring a lawyer to investigate Vick’s behavior.

“We have outside counsel that will be focused on this,” Goodell said in Washington after a meeting Tuesday at the NFL Players Association. “We have a security team and they’ll be in touch with all the appropriate parties.”

As has been well reported, while Goodell initially is taking ‘baby steps’ in dealing with Michael Vick, Falcons owner Arthur Blank had a very different approach to how he wanted to deal with Michael Vick.

“After a lot of conversations and give and take by all parties involved, Monday, as you know, the Commissioner notified Michael that he was not to report to training camp while the Commissioner was completing his review of this situation.
“Prior to this action, the Falcons were pursuing the maximum discipline that we could under the CBA, a four week suspension, and had gone so far as to draft the suspension letter. The Commissioner asked us not to take any action until he completed his review of the situation, and we agreed to his request.
“Our preference was for the club to take an action, but after reviewing all options, I do think that this is the best approach for all involved at this time. We're also in agreement with Michael's not attending training camp during the Commissioner's review. We need to allow Coach Petrino, his staff and our players to conduct a focused training camp. We owe it to them, and we need to provide them an environment in which they can plan for the season, working under the assumption that Michael's absence might well run into the regular season.”

Earlier Tuesday NBA commissioner David Stern addressed his sense of betrayal in having to deal with a far range of emotions in reacting to the alleged actions of former now disgraced NBA official Tim Donaghy. Whatever David Stern must be feeling – it must pale in comparison to the complete loss Arthur Blank must have felt and is feeling about Michael Vick.

On December 23, 2004, Arthur Blank made Michael Vick a multimillionaire and at the same time Arthur Blank made the strategic decision to make Michael Vick the face of his NFL franchise.

Vick signed a 10-year contract with the Atlanta Falcons worth $130 million with a $37 million signing bonus, making him the highest paid player in NFL history and one of largest contracts ever in sports when the deal was signed.

Vick's deal surpassed the $98 million contract the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning signed in March, 2005. Manning, who signed for seven years, is guaranteed $34.5m in bonuses. Vick's $130 million potential value topped Philadelphia’s Donovan McNabb's 12-year, $115m deal that runs through the year 2013. While NFL contracts are not guaranteed, in signing Vick to what was a record contract for an NFL player two and a half years ago, Blank put the future of his franchise in the hands of Michael Vick a scary proposition given that the four incidents of bad behavior have occurred since the contract was signed. Since Blank made Michael Vick a very rich man his behavior off the football field has been less than honorable.

The 18 page federal indictment that spells out a litany of charges against Vick including activities where dogs were strangled, shot, drowned, electrocuted and slammed to the ground and made to fight to the death has upset everyone, especially the man who anointed Michael Vick the face of a business worth close to a billion dollars.

“I think that we tried to make several statements. We made a statement, I don't remember the exact dates, but soon before the indictment but prior to the indictment we made a statement, soon after the indictment, we made a statement. We were very clear as to our feelings on the issue then to our fans, to the community, to our sponsors, to all of us.
“Today is a day when we've been able to gather the facts as we see them today. We've been able to get counsel and seek and support counsel from others, as I mentioned, in the League, the Union, Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Player, et cetera or his representatives. So I think we've made our feelings very clear today. And we did that as quickly as we possibly can.
“I don't think there's any question about how we feel about what's in the indictment. We all feel the same way. It's behavior that is really horrific. But they are charges at this point. Those are charges that we have to let the legal process play out to determine exactly what Michael is innocent of or guilty of or the other three individuals as well.”

The Davie Brown Index Wednesday released an updated report on Michael Vick and Vick’s perception in the marketplace. Over the last 30 days, his overall awareness among U.S. consumers has jumped from 32 percent to nearly 60 percent. At the same time, his likeability, trust, and influence scores nosedived – dropping 22, 19, and 12 points, respectively.

Even more striking is the sharp decline in his endorsement and aspiration scores, which dropped 26 and 24 points, respectively, in the last month.

The DBI is an independent index for brand marketers and agencies that determines a celebrity's ability to influence brand affinity and consumer purchase intent. The DBI provides brand marketers with a systematic approach for quantifying and qualifying the use of celebrities in marketing campaigns by evaluating a celebrity's awareness, appeal and relevance to a brand's image and their influence on consumer buying behavior. Created by Los Angeles-based entertainment marketing agency Davie Brown Entertainment, the DBI includes more than 1,000 celebrities and is powered by a 1.5 million-member domestic research panel.

It appeared Tuesday the Falcons are ready to end their association with Michael Vick. Blank didn’t have to say it, but given that he was ready to suspend Vick for four games (and the teams’ entire training camp) the writing is on the wall – the Falcons are beginning the process of moving on to life without Michael Vick as their marquee and team leader.

“If Michael goes through this process and there is substantial proof and, obviously, the court system finds him guilty or he pleads guilty, you know, that's a very fair, very fair question.
“Obviously, there are things, included in the indictment, that, as I said, are very repulsive to all of us. And a quarterback is not only a technical leader, but a leader of the football team. And we'd need to look at those circumstances in that light.

“My own counsel to Michael would be that these charges are extremely serious. This is not about him playing football in 2007, this is about him having a life and having a life going forward. And I would, you know, my only personal suggestion to Michael is that he focus on his defense. Focus on putting his life together in that regard. Dealing with the process, which is a very difficult process that he'll be going through in the next number of months. I think it would be very difficult for him to do that and to be focused on football at the same time.”

One of the issues the Falcons made clear at Tuesday’s presser – after Tuesday media conference the organization wasn’t going to comment on the off-field distraction Michael Vick would continue to be once training camp opens today.

“We've got a football team that Coach Petrino and his staff need the right environment to get ready to play in the '07 Season. So for us, until the circumstances change, we will not be discussing this situation. Any questions with respect to football, any day you want to ask them, feel free. With respect to this current situation, as I say, until the circumstances change, we owe it to our players to try to create an environment that is focused and ready for football. So that would certainly be what we're about.” Falcons’ team president Rich McKay made clear Tuesday.

That said – Blank, McKay and Petrino can say whatever they’d like but they’re already calling the Falcons 2007 training camp – Camp Chaos.

"This is a football team," Falcons owner Arthur Blank said. "This is not a circus."

Mark Schlereth, an analyst with ESPN and former 12-year NFL veteran, told The Atlanta Journal Constitution Falcons players must accept that Vick is gone.

"We used to have this saying 'That guy's dead.' " Schlereth said about injured or missing teammates. "As bad as that sounds, not in the figurative sense, but the literal sense, that guy is dead, move on. There is nothing we can do. Wish him well, but at the same time you have to focus on what you're trying to accomplish as individual and as a team."

"I guarantee you that Bobby Petrino feels as though they can win with the people that they have, with or without Michael Vick," said Schlereth, who won a Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins and two with the Denver Broncos. "So I don't think there's a sense of panic."

Blank for his part believes Bobby Petrino will be able to handle the inevitable Barnum and Bailey atmosphere that will be a part of the Falcons training camp (at least the first few weeks of the teams’ training camp).

"This is not about one player," Blank said. "It's never been about one player. It is about a football team. It is about an organization that wins on the field. It is about an organization that wins off the field."

"I've heard this from every coach that I've been exposed to in the National Football League, it's not how you deal with the good days, it's how you deal with the bad days," Blank said. "It's how you deal with adversity. I have tremendous confidence in this coaching staff and our players as well, that they will respond and that we will have a very successful team this year."

The Falcons for their part have for years made their players available to the media when the players arrived at training camp on Wednesday. The team instead made the prudent decision to meet with the players first and then allow media access following Thursday’s first workout. Better to ensure Vick’s teammates are all on message than allowing the media (they’re still going to try) to pick the Falcons apart.

Wednesday evening USA Today reported animal rights groups are poised to protest the federal courthouse where NFL star Michael Vick and three other men face arraignment on dogfighting charges.

According to the report, while the Humane Society are planning a low-key approach, PETA are looking at a full frontal assault on the courthouse.

While Humane Society spokesman Martin Montorfano expects a "media circus," he says his group plans no demonstrations but will have representatives present for interviews.

"This is what we've been asking for, for the authorities to get involved and for them to take this seriously. … I don't think this is a proper venue to be engaged in activist-type tactics," Montorfano says.

PETA, based in Norfolk, Va., expects to have at least 100 demonstrators, some with their dogs. "We've been hearing from other groups that are organizing demonstrations. … There's going to be a lot of people out there," says PETA spokesman Dan Shannon.

NASCAR racer and animal rights advocate Greg Biffle won’t be in Richmond today with the protesters, but used his profile Wednesday to share where he believes Vick’s destiny is heading “I just wish they'd put him in jail and be done with it."

"Just put him in prison and tell the general public, just give them all the details of what they do with those dogs," Biffle said. "How they steal people's dogs out of their front yards and use them for bait dogs and let other dogs kill them. There's all the horrifying stories. You look at all the pictures on the Internet of the dogs, just maimed, mangled. It's horrible."

"It goes on everywhere. He's not the only guy. It goes on in this state too," Biffle said. "Maybe they'll use him as an example and maybe get some other people to think about whether they want to be in federal prison with him or not."

Whatever Arthur Blank may have expressed Tuesday, whatever the Falcons may share in the coming days and weeks regarding Michael Vick – Vick guilty or innocent, Michael Vick’s image is beyond repair, especially to a man who has built his reputation along the lines of what Arthur Blank has sold himself to people.

Since acquiring the franchise in February 2002, he has made significant changes that have created renewed excitement for Falcons fans across the region.

During Blank’s first year as owner, the Falcons generated a 100 percent increase in season ticket sales, the highest single-year increase in season ticket sales in NFL history. Fans have filled the Georgia Dome at every home game since Blank took ownership of the club, and for the first time in the franchise’s 40-year history, there is a waiting list for season tickets – a list that currently exceeds 60,000 fans.

Blank is also Owner & CEO of the Georgia Force. He acquired this Arena Football League team in August 2004, and is putting the same passion into building this franchise as he continues to put into the Falcons. In its first season under Blank’s ownership, the Force team played to record-breaking attendance, setting new records on the field, capturing their first National Conference Championship and appearing in their first ArenaBowl. New attendance and player records were also set in the 2006 season, and the Force achieved their first-ever back-to-back-season trip to the playoffs.

Blank is also Chairman, President & CEO of AMB Group, LLC, and Chairman of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. Both companies are part of The Arthur M. Blank Family Office, with the common purpose of giving back to society through financial contributions and personal involvement.

Blank is widely known in the business community for his success in building the world’s largest home improvement retailer. He co-founded The Home Depot in 1978 and retired from the company as Co-Chairman in 2001. At the time of his retirement, The Home Depot was a component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average and one of Fortune Magazine’s "Global Most Admired Companies." During Blank’s last year as CEO of the company, The Home Depot ranked first in social responsibility in an annual survey conducted by Harris Interactive, Inc.

Blank believes in the importance of making a difference – professionally and personally. In addition to the company’s financial success, during his 23 years with The Home Depot the company donated more than $113 million to communities, and Home Depot associates provided hundreds of thousands of hours of personal volunteer time. Blank is extending his experience and values to the Atlanta Falcons and Georgia Force in building two competitive and financially-successful franchises, as well as through the works of the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation and community involvement activities.

Blank is also dedicated to his own giving back. Through his generosity, The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, along with Blank and his wife’s personal giving, has granted over $220 million to various organizations, most recently in Atlanta; Maricopa County, Arizona; and Beaufort County, South Carolina. Mr. and Mrs. Blank were named as the 2000 Georgia Philanthropists of the Year by the National Society of Fundraising Executives.

Blank is recognized throughout the country for his personal and professional achievements. In 2006, he was named Distinguished American by the Walter Camp Football Foundation, which every year recognizes an individual who has utilized his or her talents to attain great success in business, private life, or public service. Also in 2006, Blank was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame, and in 2005 he was named National Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young.

In 2003, for the second time in three years, Blank was named Georgia’s Most Respected CEO by Georgia Trend magazine, and in 2002 he was inducted into Georgia State University’s Business Hall of Fame. Among other previous honors, Babson College inducted Blank into its Academy of Distinguished Entrepreneurs in 1995 and conferred on him an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws in 1998.

Blank serves on a number of boards including: Outward Bound USA, where he chairs the Board of Trustees; the Commerce Club, an Atlanta organization of community business leaders; the Board of Trustees of The Carter Center, Inc.; the Board of Trustees of Emory University; the Board of Trustees of The Cooper Institute; and the boards of Cox Enterprises, Inc., and Staples, Inc.

Blank is Chairman of the capital campaign for the new Atlanta Symphony Center. He recently served as Co-Chair for the capital campaign for the new Centennial Olympic Games Museum at the Atlanta History Center.

In September 2001, Blank joined the faculty of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School as its first Distinguished Executive in Residence. He also served as the 2003 Chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

A native of Flushing, N.Y., Blank received a B.S. Degree in Business Administration with Distinction from Babson College, where he was active in a wide variety of extracurricular activities.

Blank has six children and two grandchildren. He and his wife, Stephanie, and their three children live in Atlanta. A strong believer in work-life balance, Blank still makes time for working out and remains an avid runner. His favorite T-shirt appropriately reads, "There is no finish line."

A foundation, a principal of the American Constitution is the belief that someone is innocent until they’re proven guilty. Michael Vick has hired a great team of lawyers and will be afforded due process and he could indeed be proven innocent of the charges. But the damage that has been done to Michael Vick’s reputation is beyond repair in Atlanta. As Blank alluded too, the quarterback is not just the technical leader of a football team but the ‘leader’ both on and off the field.

Arthur Blank has spent a lifetime building a reputation of honor and respect. Men like Arthur Blank understand everyone is entitled to their day in court, but at the end of the day men like Arthur Blank understand there comes a time when an organization needs to distance themselves from someone who has become damaged goods. It isn’t always right, but its part of what makes men like Arthur Blank successful. They make tough decisions that at times make them seem like unforgiving souls. In this case, the only correct decision Arthur Blank can make is to end his association with Michael Vick in the near future and move forward. At the end of the day a billion dollar business will have paid a terrible price, but without paying that price that business (the Falcons) will move backwards. Better to take the hit now, and then allow Michael Vick to bring the Falcons down anymore than he already has.

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The Atlanta Journal Constitution, USA Today and the Associated Press

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