Friday, July 20, 2007

Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn – the media and the image of an NFL franchise

The media as has so often become the case in the age of instant communications has played a key role in the Michael Vick alleged dogfighting story. Opinions have nearly been universal condemning Vick after he was indicted earlier this week on charges he had participated in a dogfighting business since 2001. The Vick story has been dissected from nearly every possible angle – the Vick saga has evolved into media frenzy. For years Michael Vick has been the face of the Atlanta Falcons, but the question has to be asked – why has the media focused so much attention on Michael Vick while all but ignoring Warrick Dunn. If the charges against Vick are true, there might never have been two more polar opposites when it comes to their image off the field, which played for the same NFL team at the same time than Vick and Dunn.

After graduating from Florida State in 1997 (yes a college football player who graduated with his class on time), Dunn was selected the 12th overall pick in the 1997 NFL draft. Dunn was chosen by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In his rookie season Dunn made an immediate impact for the Buccaneers squad. As the year finished he was selected to the NFC Pro Bowl team and was named the Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year. Dunn spent the first five years of his career in Tampa Bay where he was named to the Pro Bowl twice (1997, 2000) before signing with the Atlanta Falcons in the 2002 off-season. Once again, he made a positive impact on his team with 9 total TDs and in that year, he led the league with a 5.4 yards per carry average.

But the real Warrick Dunn story what makes Warrick Dunn so different from Michael Vick, how Dunn has handled himself away from a football field. From Monday through Saturday’s Warrick Dunn has taken each and every moment working to make the world around him a better place.

As the oldest of six, Warrick grew up watching his mother, Betty Smothers, provide for him and his five siblings. As a single mother she worked endless hours as a Baton Rouge police officer and several off-duty jobs to make ends meet. During Warrick’s senior year at Catholic high school, his mother’s life was taken in the line of duty, leaving him the responsibility of keeping the family together. Although she worked hard all of her life, Betty was never able to realize the American dream of owning her own home.

After being drafted to the NFL by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1997, Warrick established a program called “Homes for the Holidays” as an effort to keep his mother’s dream of homeownership alive through other single mothers working hard to provide for their families.

“Homes for the Holidays” assists single mothers in owning their first home by providing the down payment on a house and then filling the house with everything a first-time homeowner would need including: furniture, food, linens, lawn mower, gardening supplies, washer, dryer, dishes, pots and pans, etc. This program is the primary focus of the Warrick Dunn Foundation and to date has assisted 60 single mothers and more then 140 children in Atlanta , GA , Baton Rouge , LA and Tampa , FL.

After five years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Warrick joined the Atlanta Falcons in March of 2002 and established the Warrick Dunn Foundation in an effort to expand the “Homes for the Holidays” program.

And the man that Warrick Dunn has been recognized and honored off the field:

• Sporting News #1 Good Guy in Sports - June 2005
• NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year - 2005
• Atlanta Falcons’ Man of the Year – 2003
• Sporting News’ 75 Good Guys in Sports – June 1999, 2000, 2003, & 2004
• The Henry P. Iba Citizen Athlete Award – June 23, 2003
• The National Center on Black Philanthropy – June 16, 2003
• The Frank Ski Kids Foundation - Athlete of the Year – June 14, 2003
• Sports Illustrated’s 101 Most Influential Minorities in Sports – May 5, 2003 Issue
• The Boy Scouts of America – Atlanta ’s Peach of an Athlete Award – May 2003
• Sporting News’ Top 100 most powerful sports personalities
• John H. Macy Award for individual leadership from The National Alliance to End
Homelessness - 2002
• Giant Steps Award in civic leadership from former President Bill Clinton – 1998
• NFL Extra Effort Award – 1998

And here’s what Warrick Dunn has said about why he does what he does: “I just tried to tell them that if we do things together we can touch more people and get more done. A lot of people around the country have done a lot of things, but you never know if it's enough. ... It's not just homes. They need to rebuild their lives.”

After Hurricane Katrina nearly leveled the City of New Orleans again Warrick Dunn stood tall encouraging each NFL player to donate $10,000 to help rebuild the city and help restore lost lives: “At first, I thought about $10,000 because right now people need money, ... Everybody's going to try to send clothes, food, but people need money so they can start getting back on their feet. People don't have jobs, clothes on their back. People have lost everything, but I think guys can afford to donate $5,000. There's a lot of guys that make a lot of money.”

And then there’s Michael Vick – the face of the Atlanta Falcons since was the first overall pick in the 2001 NFL draft. In what has likely been forgotten by most football fans the San Diego Chargers had the number one selection spot in the draft that year but traded the rights to the first overall choice to the Atlanta Falcons a day before the draft, for which they received the Falcons' first round pick (5th overall) and third round pick in 2001 (used to draft CB Tay Cody), a second round pick in 2002 (used to draft WR Reche Caldwell) and WR/KR Tim Dwight.

With the Chargers' went from having the first overall pick to the 5th overall, they selected Texas Christian University running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who went on to become league MVP in 2006 (although Vick has never become league MVP, he finished second in voting in 2004). Unlike Dunn who played at Florida State for four years and graduated on time, Vick left Virginia Tech after his junior season as a redshirt sophomore. Vick started his second and last year as a Hokie leading the team to the mythical NCAA football title game.

Both men grew up in the American Southeast Vick in a public housing project for disadvantaged youth in Newport News , Virginia (the area around Richmond , Virginia ) and Dunn in Baton Rouge, Louisiana .

The Vick saga has unfortunately brought attention to the repulsive world of dogfighting into the mainstream media. Bringing attention to something as repugnant as dogfighting is important. One point raised in many media reports – geographically dogfighting takes place in the American Southeast more than any other region of the country. Both Dunn and Vick grew up in the same geographic region – yet the two men ended up taking very different paths off a football field.

Late Thursday afternoon Falcons owner the man who employees both Vick and Dunn released the following statement to the media. Blank sent a letter to Falcons season ticket holders expressing his concerns about Michael Vick, saying the team was ‘exploring their options’ when it comes to Vick’s future with the Falcons.

"Please be assured that we are working diligently on exploring our options and getting the right people involved in this situation," Blank said in the statement.

"This is an emotionally charged and complicated matter. There are a wide range of interests and legal issues that need to be carefully considered as we move ahead, including our need to respect the due process that Michael is entitled to. Also, this situation affects everyone – our club, our players and associates, our sponsors, our fans and the Atlanta community among them – so we must consider all of our customers in making any decisions.

"Given the differing perspectives and strong feelings around this issue, we probably won't make everyone happy, but we are committed to doing the right thing. As the owner of this club that's, ultimately, my responsibility," Blank said.

"In the meantime, know that I'm saddened and distressed about this – not for myself, but for our fans and community who have been so loyal to us. We will do our very best to continue to earn your support," he concluded.

Before Blank decides what he’s going to do regarding Vick he knows he has to consider the impact the Falcons releasing Vick would have on the Falcons ability to field a competitive football team.

NFL contracts are not guaranteed. The Falcons signed Vick to a 10-year, $130 million contract in December 2004. He has been paid about $44 million, including $37 million in guaranteed bonuses, and is due to earn a base salary of $6 million this season.

Teams can amortize the salary cap implications of signing bonuses, but if a player is cut, all bonuses paid but not yet factored into the salary cap must be accounted for within two years. The Falcons could apply to the NFL for cap relief. However the league historically doesn’t set precedents when it comes to offering franchises cap relief for indiscressions.

The Falcons face an estimated salary cap hit of about $6 million this year and $15 million in 2008 if they release Vick -- devastating hits to any team's budget. The Falcons could sue Vick to recover parts of the remaining bonuses money amortized over the remaining years of his contract, but it’s unlikely the team would win their case in court. The Detroit Lions successfully sued running back Barry Sanders when he retired from football, but remember Sanders retired on his own.

And the Miami Dolphins successfully sued Ricky Williams when Williams tried to retire before the start of the 2004 season. A judge ordered Williams to repay the Dolphins $9 million. Williams rethought his decision to retire, returned to the Dolphins for the 2005 season, only to be suspended by the NFL for the 2006 season. But Williams wasn’t forced to repay the $9 million once he agreed to return.

Thursday Nike Vick’s biggest single off-field corporate partnership announced they where ‘delaying’ their planned August 23 release of the Vick V shoe, which if and when it is release will retail for $100.

“Nike is concerned by the serious and highly disturbing allegations made against Michael Vick and we consider any cruelty to animals inhumane and abhorrent. We do believe that Michael Vick should be afforded the same due process as any citizen; therefore, we have not terminated our relationship. We have however made the decision to suspend the release of the Zoom Vick V and related marketing communications. Nike will continue to monitor the situation closely and have no further comment at this time.”

The challenge Blank and Nike face isn’t in deciding what they believe is right or wrong, if Vick is convicted they’ll have no choice but to end their association(s) with Michael Vick (if convicted he’d be a federal felon), but how they best handle public opinion while caught in the midst of a media firestorm. There battling an indefensible full frontal assault on one of their key assets – here’s a sample of a few of the quotes linked to the Michael Vick story (just from the last 24 hours).

"The recent media spotlight on dogfighting reminds us of society's callous disregard for the suffering of animals and disrespect for sentient beings," they wrote in letters that arrived by FedEx Thursday morning. "We hope that Mr. Vick is not a product of this insensitivity that runs through our society. ... It does us little good to prosecute just those who are famous and allow people across the country to continue to commit these hideous crimes. We are hopeful that authorities will take the appropriate action against anyone found guilty of an atrocity as serious as dogfighting ... . Today, we sound a clarion call to all people: Stand up for what is right, and speak out against what is wrong. Dogfighting is unacceptable. Hurting animals for human pleasure or gain is despicable. Cruelty is just plain wrong." That was part of a letter sent to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell from hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, civil rights leader The Rev. Al Sharpton, and PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk and made public on PETA’s website.

Ironically the sports media that have at times lampooned PETA when they have taken on issues impacting the sports industry they believed where silly are now falling all over themselves in hopes of talking to PETA officials about Michael Vick. Five years ago PETA launched a campaign to ban sport fishing.

"We're trying to get fishing banned in all state parks," PETA’s Bruce Friedrich said.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says fishing is a violent and cruel sport that victimizes the innocent inhabitants of the nation's waterways. They've initiated a campaign demanding states ban the time-honored sport.

"They have the capacity to feel pain. They have a capacity to suffer," Friedrich said. "For reasons that really defy logic, we allow people to spend their afternoon impaling them on hooks."

Fisherman have cast their own barbs.

"They eat each other and they die," fisherman Anthony Young said. "Is that cruelty?"

In 2002 (the same year as the fish protest), ESPN reported that the Milwaukee Brewers denied PETA's request to include a vegetarian soy sausage in the Brewers' traditional game-day race of mascots, which includes a bratwurst, a hot dog, a Polish and Italian sausage.

PETA also sent letters to the two NBA Rookie of the Year frontrunners that year, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, advising them to turn down the award since it is sponsored by "Got Milk?," a campaign overseen by the California Milk Processors Board. PETA officials say they object to the cruelty that dairy cows endure as a result of their treatment by dairy farmers. What made those PETA campaigns “funny to the media” and the Michael Vick story so much more seriously?

Veteran agent Leigh Steinberg told The Washington Post he likened that Vick’s future prospects in the marketplace to Kobe Bryant continuing to play basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers while facing a sexual assault charge in Colorado that was dropped in 2004, and Barry Bonds chasing baseball's career home run record as allegations of steroid use swirl around him.

"Athletes have a remarkable ability to compartmentalize," Steinberg said in The Washington Post report. "They can put aside controversies -- legal problems and off-the-field problems -- and put it in one part of their consciousness. Their ability to focus is extraordinary. They can set aside the problems of real life on the football field. . . . In the midst of a lasting and emotionally draining fight, the football field will be a refuge.

"For Kobe Bryant in the midst of his legal problems, playing for the Lakers was his salvation. How does an athlete do it? In many ways when the outside world is threatening, being able to go out onto the field is an emotional salvation. . . . I think Michael Vick is reasonably popular with his teammates. Barry Bonds isn't. If Michael Vick was Barry Bonds, he'd be sacked on every play."

Forgiveness from the football-watching public could be a trickier issue, Steinberg said.

"It's dependent on the stance the player takes," the agent said. "When an athlete steps up and says: 'I was engaged in conduct that was wrong. I know it's not acceptable. I know I am held to a higher standard and will take steps to make sure it won't happen again,' the public will be angry but it will forgive. . . . Michael Vick's problem is with the news cycle. They will take this and run it over and over again in so many ways.

"He's got a major, major problem and there are not too many people who think hanging a dog or electrocuting a dog -- man's best friend -- is a nice thing to do. For a big, tough football player to mistreat a dog, it's not going to play well."

Mike Paul a New York based crisis management consultant made some very good points to The New York Times: “There are few affinities that touch everybody: people who have kids and, second to that, is people who have pets,” Paul said. “The teams are going to learn how powerful this affinity is between people and their pets.”

Neil Schwartz, the director of business development for SportsOneSource, a company in Princeton , N.J. , told The New York Times whether Vick’s guilty or innocent, Michael Vick who lost several sponsors before Wednesday’s indictment (Powerade, Kraft Foods and AirTran) is finished as a corporate spokesman.

“Americans are incredibly forgiving people,” Schwartz said. “But there are certain things people won’t overlook. This is one of them. Steroid use, I think people will overlook it. Drug use, our athletes get a lot of chances. But the P.R. from this is going to be horrible. This could be one of the all-time worst errors in judgment in the history of errors in judgment.”

Why then has so much focus been wrapped around Michael Vick and so little on the goodness Warrick Dunn brings to the world everyday? Michael Vick resembles a human train wreck and given the opportunity to follow a train wreck or watch a building being built – people would rather watch a train wreck. There’s a general belief a majority of those who attend car races go to see wrecks – maybe it’s time we looked at our society and who we choose to look at.

But the greatest single example of why the media has an unquenching thirst to cover stories along the lines of what has gone on with Michael Vick this week, lies in the days following the terrible toll September 11, 2001 had on everyone. In the days and weeks after so many honorable and brave men lost their lives in the Twin Towers “we” talked about making policeman and fireman where the real heroes of society. Ask yourself how true a statement that is nearly six years after the greatest single terrorist attack on American soil.

Ask yourself why isn’t Warrick Dunn the face of the Atlanta Falcons and why was Michael Vick the face of the Falcons?

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: Wikipedia, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Washington Post and The New York Times.

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