Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Michael Vick – time to pay the piper

The National Football League’s zero tolerance conduct code is about to face its first real test. The true test for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s message to the league’s players that any off-field indiscressions has arrived in the persona of Michael Vick. Goodell has lowered the boom on Pacman Jones, Chris Henry and Tank Johnson – each NFL starters but none close to how important Michael Vick is to the Atlanta Falcons. Any chance the Falcons have on the football field is directly linked to Michael Vick.

Tuesday the Falcons may indeed have gone from contenders to pretenders after a Federal Grand Jury released an eighteen page indictment against Vick alleging his role in a Virginia based dog-fighting business where breeders allegedly fought pit bulls for purses as high as $26,000 and some losing dogs were electrocuted, drowned, hanged or shot to death. Additionally the 18-page federal indictment, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, also names three other defendants: Purnell A. Peace, 35, of Virginia Beach; Quanis L. Phillips, 28, of Atlanta; and Tony Taylor, 34, of Hampton, Va.

Both the National Football League and the Falcons were quick to react Tuesday evening.

The Atlanta Falcons issued the following statement regarding the U.S. District Court indictment of Falcons QB Michael Vick Tuesday evening: "This situation has been troubling to many people, including our fans, during the last few months. With today’s news, our club and team will continue to be tested as Michael works through the legal process toward a conclusion.

“We are disappointed that one of our players – and therefore the Falcons – is being presented to the public in a negative way, and we apologize to our fans and the community for that.

“Obviously, we are disturbed by today’s news from Virginia. However, we are prepared to deal with it, and we will do the right thing for our club as the legal process plays out. We have a season to prepare for and training camp opens next week. Our plan is to continue to do everything we can to support our players and coaches."

“We are disappointed that Michael Vick has put himself in a position where a federal grand jury has returned an indictment against him. We will continue to closely monitor developments in this case, and to cooperate with law enforcement authorities. The activities alleged are cruel, degrading and illegal. Michael Vick’s guilt has not yet been proven, and we believe that all concerned should allow the legal process to determine the facts. The matter will be reviewed under the League’s Personal Conduct Policy.” said NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy.

While Vick hasn’t been convicted and has only be indicated it’s reasonable to expect Roger Goodell to suspend Vick for at least four games and as many as eight games in the near future. Goodell has made examples of deviant behavior by NFL players away from the football field as one of the cornerstones during his first year as NFL commissioner.

When Goodell announced the NFL’s conduct code in early April he made it perfectly clear to everyone – there was a new sheriff in town and Roger Goodell wasn’t going to take anymore examples of NFL players behaving badly.

"It is important that the NFL be represented consistently by outstanding people as well as great football players, coaches, and staff," Commissioner Goodell said. "We hold ourselves to higher standards of responsible conduct because of what it means to be part of the National Football League. We have long had policies and programs designed to encourage responsible behavior, and this policy is a further step in ensuring that everyone who is part of the NFL meets that standard. We will continue to review the policy and modify it as warranted."

How much meaning do those words have if a New York Daily News report is correct that suggests "Goodell will not suspend Vick based on the indictment handed down yesterday by a federal grand jury on charges related to dogfighting, which is a felony. The league will contend it's a long way from indictment to conviction, so Goodell will allow the legal process to play out." All fair points -- but what about the damage Michael Vick has done to the image of the National Football League through his alleged actions?

Added NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw: "The NFL Players Association and the Player Advisory Council have been discussing this issue for several months. We believe that these are steps that the commissioner needs to take and we support the policy. It is important that players in violation of the policy will have the opportunity and the support to change their conduct and earn their way back."

On the day Goodell made his long anticipated announcement he sent Adam Packman Jones packing suspending him for the entire 2007 season and the Cincinnati Bengals Chris Henry for the first eight games of the 2007 season. Both men as has been well documented have had numerous legal issues in their brief NFL careers. Subsequent to Jones and Henry’s suspensions Goodell announced that former Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson would be suspended for the first eight games of the 2007 NFL season. The Bears have since cut Johnson from their team and Johnson has yet to be signed by another NFL franchise.

“We must protect the integrity of the NFL,” Commissioner Goodell said. “The highest standards of conduct must be met by everyone in the NFL because it is a privilege to represent the NFL, not a right. These players, and all members of our league, have to make the right choices and decisions in their conduct on a consistent basis.”

In a letter to each player, Commissioner Goodell wrote: "Your conduct has brought embarrassment and ridicule upon yourself, your club, and the NFL, and has damaged the reputation of players throughout the league. You have put in jeopardy an otherwise promising NFL career, and have risked both your own safety and the safety of others through your off-field actions. In each of these respects, you have engaged in conduct detrimental to the NFL and failed to live up to the standards expected of NFL players. Taken as a whole, this conduct warrants significant sanction."

The problems Vick is facing is the latest in a series of mistakes the player many believed could one day change the face of the National Football League has made in the last three and a half years.

On December 23, 2004, 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.

In March 2005 a woman named Sonya Elliot filed a civil lawsuit against Vick alleging she contracted genital herpes from Vick and that he failed to inform her that he had the disease. Elliot further alleged that Vick had visited clinics under the alias "Ron Mexico" to get treatments and thus he knew of his condition. This led to a deluge of fans ordering customized #7 Atlanta Falcons jerseys on NFLShop.com with the name " Mexico " on the back. Due to the media interest surrounding the case, the National Football League disallowed the use of the jersey/name combination two days after the lawsuit.

On April 24, 2006 Vick's attorney revealed that the lawsuit had settled out of court with an undisclosed settlement.

Video game developer Midway Games has alluded to Vick and his Ron Mexico alter-ego in their 2006 title, Blitz: The League. Due to Midway's loss of the National Football League license (EA Sports now has exclusive NFL licensing); all teams and players in the game are fictitious. However, the "Washington Redhawks"' star quarterback is a mobile, left-handed passer named "Mike Mexico."

After a Falcons loss to the New Orleans Saints in the Georgia Dome on November 26, 2006 Vick made an obscene gesture at Atlanta fans, holding up two middle fingers. Vick has said, "I'm sorry and I apologize to all the young kids and to whoever saw me make that gesture. I just let my emotions get the best of me in that situation and it won't happen again."

Vick was fined $10,000 by the NFL for his obscene gesture, and agreed to donate another $10,000 to charity. Vick split his charity donation to two separate causes. He gave $5,000 to the family of a local fireman who had just died. He gave the other half to the Warrick Dunn foundation (which helps support single mothers).

On January 17, 2007 Vick surrendered a water bottle to security at Miami International Airport . Due to Vick's reluctance to leave the bottle behind, it was later retrieved from a trash receptacle. The bottle was found to have a hidden compartment that contained "a small amount of dark particulate and a pungent aroma closely associated with marijuana," a Miami police report said. "The compartment was hidden by the bottle's label so that it appeared to be a full bottle of water when held upright," police said. On Monday, January 22, 2007 the test results indicated there were no illegal substances in the water bottle and Vick was cleared of any wrongdoing. Vick also was drug tested and he was found innocent.

The security tape from the airport documenting the incident has also been erased because, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Miami-Dade Police Department spokesman Robert Williams wrote in an e-mail: "That information was shown to the State Attorney's Office and it was determined by them that no criminal act was committed and no charges were filed. Therefore, this video was deleted from the flash drive since it was not being used in a criminal case."

The Falcons later released the following statement: "We appreciate the speed at which the Miami authorities concluded their investigation, and we are pleased to learn of the outcome of the investigation. This is another reminder of the high-profile nature of a professional athlete and the close scrutiny players undergo related to their conduct on and off the field. We look forward to putting this matter behind us."

On March 22, 2007 Vick announced that the water bottle was a jewelry stash box, and that the substance in question had been jewelry. Vick indicated that he keeps his jewelry there to prevent theft.

Before the test results indicated there were no illegal substances in the water bottle and Vick was cleared of any wrongdoing, Saturday Night Live went on to do a parody of the incident in which they questioned Vick's actions in a skit called "Oh Really?"
Vick has enjoyed some of the biggest endorsement opportunities of any current NFL’er. His endorsement contracts include Nike, AirTran Airways, EA Sports, Coca-Cola, Powerade, Kraft, Rawlings, and Hasbro. His contract along with his endorsements had Vick ranked 33 among Forbes' Top 100 Celebrities in 2005.

In June 2006, Vick, along with his brother Marcus Vick and mother Brenda Vick Boddie, established The Vick Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports at-risk youth and the after school programs that serve them in the Metro Atlanta and Hampton Roads areas. The announcement of the organization came just before the start of the foundation’s first fundraiser, The Michael Vick Golf Classic. The inaugural event was held at the prestigious Kingsmill Golf Course in partnership with The Virginia Tech Alumni Association Tidewater Chapter, and netted more than $80,000 for charity. Still even when he’s trying to do something good, Vick in recent years has managed to turn a good situation into a potential embarrassment.

On April 24, 2007, Vick was scheduled to lobby on Capitol Hill, hoping to persuade lawmakers to increase funding for after-school programs but Vick missed a connecting flight in Atlanta and failed to show for his Tuesday morning appearance.

Vick's publicist, Susan Bass, said it wasn't his fault. Vick was in Tampa, Florida, on Monday to play in teammate Warrick Dunn's charity golf tournament, then caught a flight to Atlanta that was supposed to arrive in time for him to make another flight to Reagan National Airport in northern Virginia; but the AirTran flight was late leaving Tampa, Vick missed his connection, and wound up stuck in Atlanta, Bass said. "He was really mad," Bass added.

Vick's mother, Brenda Boddie, accepted an award from the Afterschool Alliance on her son's behalf. Vick was honored for his foundation's work with after-school projects in Georgia and Virginia. Forget about assessing blame, the bottom line Michael Vick had made a commitment and had failed to live up to that commitment. For an athlete so in need of good publicity, there are no excuses – end of discussion. In all likelihood Vick’s appearance an event linked to Warrick Dunn (one of the true good guys in sports) offered Vick the chance to be in the right place at the right time, but after so many recent missteps missing an opportunity (for whatever reason) becomes amplified.

When the allegations first broke in early May connecting Vick to the alleged dog-fighting incidents in Virginia Falcons owner (the team did release a statement following Tuesday night’s indictment) Arthur Blank had several comments worth recalling given Tuesday’s indictment.

"What [Goodell] will do about it, I'm not sure, but he's not going to take it lightly," Blank said. "He's got Michael on his radar and I think he made that clear to Michael as well."

For what it’s worth Blank told The Atlanta Journal Constitution he did not know if Vick has any involvement but, "from the facts we have so far, it's not a pretty picture. It's clearly an issue and we'll wait and see what revolves around it. I'm not a prosecutor or an attorney so I'm not going to sit in judgment of Michael."

At the same time, Blank is concerned about the impact Vick is having on his football teams’ image in the community.

"I told him, 'You represent us as a franchise, you represent yourself as a person and you represent the NFL. It's not one single thing, it's a series of things,' " Blank said.

"I'm not saying he's been directly involved, but in some cases he has been, and in some cases it's been the people around him." Blank said he admonished Vick: " 'You're responsible for who you're with. You need to make some difficult choices and you need to make them now. I think you're at a critical point in your life.' "

"There's no coddling going on here,'' Blank said. "Whatever is 180 degrees from that, that's the reality. The [financial] investment we've made in him has nothing to do with the way we treat him. When Michael has done something wrong that has been documented, we've had very direct conversations with him. We don't have all the facts of the [dog fighting] investigation, but obviously the story's not developing well. Which is one of the reasons why I asked the commissioner to speak to Michael about the situation and to be as stern as he felt he needed to be.''

Blank said he personally told Vick in May that his behavior must change, and not just his words -- or else.

"I would say Michael understands, and I told him he is in essence on a short leash,'' Blank said.”His behavior cannot go on this way. His actions need to be different; his decisions need to be different. He can't just talk about changing things; he has to change his life. He says he understands, and I'm hoping he's being truthful with us and wants to deal with it. I hope he has the personal strength. I think it's very appropriate to say he's at a crossroads.'

"I hope he'll make some good choices and get on with his life,'' Blank said.”I told Michael, 'You've heard of the saying you are what you eat?' Well, you are who you spend time with as well. Who you hang out with, it's important. It's part of who you are known as, as a person and an NFL player.''

Looking at what Roger Goodell has no choice in doing – he’ll be forced to suspend Vick for at least the Falcons first four games; if not the first eight games of the 2007 NFL schedule. Comparing apples to apples (the three players suspended by Goodell) Jones has been arrested 11 times (but never convicted) Henry five times (convicted of minor offenses) and Johnson spent two months in jail following Bears Super Bowl appearance. Vick falls into a ‘grey area’ he hasn’t been convicted ‘yet’ but stands indicted of a heinous crime that will further embarrass the NFL on the eve of the start of training camps.

And unlike the first three players suspended by Goodell – Vick’s first serious brush with the legal system is the alleged dog-fighting issue. That said – there is no excuse for his behavior off the field and as the so-called leader of the Atlanta Falcons – Roger Goodell has to send a message to Michael Vick and all NFL players – there’s a price to pay if you embarrass the National Football League. No one has the right to play on Sunday’s, it should be a privilege and an honor – and Michael Vick is going to pay the price.

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: ESPN and The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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