How next few months look for Vick
Any missteps during home confinement could mean trip back to prison
July 20 is the date Vick can formally seek reinstatement in the NFL
Ongoing bankruptcy case supplies motivation for Vick to play again
Michael Vick is headed home, but he won't be able to leave it. At least not yet.
After spending nearly 18 months in the Leavenworth, Kan., federal penitentiary for aiding and sponsoring dog fighting, Vick will complete the last two months of his 23-month sentence in home confinement. He'll enjoy plenty of space and comfort in his five-bedroom, 3,538-square-foot brick home in Hampton, Va., but his life will remain very restricted, with little-to-no margin for error.
As a constant reminder of his controlled life, Vick must wear an electronic monitor at all times. The monitor is particularly important since Vick cannot leave his home except for pre-approved and scheduled absences, such as attending religious services, meeting with his attorneys or working a job. Although he'll be home at most hours, Vick won't be throwing any parties, as only his fiancÚ and their children can stay with him. Vick can also expect scheduled and unscheduled visits by supervising officers. Any missteps could lead Vick back to prison.
Vick will be employed during these two months, though not with the Atlanta Falcons, which hold the last five years of his 10-year, $130 million NFL contract. Instead, Vick, who the NFL has suspended indefinitely without pay, will be employed as a general laborer at a W.M. Jordan Company construction site in Virginia. He'll earn $10 an hour.
Assuming Vick's two months of home confinement go without incident, he will be released from federal custody on July 20. Even then he won't be "free," however, as he will be subject to three years of supervised probation. During this three-year probationary period, Vick will be required to comply with a program designed to re-establish him as a productive member of society. He will be obligated to perform community service (likely with the Humane Society), refrain from associating with known criminals, avoid committing any crimes, follow travel restrictions, and report regularly to a probation officer. Then, if all goes well, Michael Vick will once again be a free man -- in the summer of 2012.
The date of July 20 is significant for another reason: at that time, Vick can formally seek reinstatement into the NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodell has intimated that he will consider reinstating Vick only after Vick gains release from federal custody, which should occur on that date. Under the NFL's personnel conduct policy, the commissioner can sanction any player whose conduct is "detrimental" to the league, with the meaning of "detrimental," along with any accompanying sanction, determined solely by the commissioner. Just as important, a sanctioned player can only appeal the commissioner's sanction back to the commissioner. In other words, Vick's fate as an NFL player rests entirely in the hands of Goodell.
What will Goodell do? He appears poised to reinstate Vick for the 2009 season, though probably with onerous strings attached, such as Vick facing permanent expulsion should he get into any trouble. Without expressly saying so, Goodell has laid out a roadmap for Vick's reinstatement. He has conditioned reinstatement upon Vick showing genuine remorsefulness. Goodell also expects Vick to demonstrate that he has learned from his mistakes and that he can be a positive influence going forward.
For his part, Vick has acknowledged that he committed "heinous" acts, has expressed sorrow for them and offered a desire to become a better person for himself and others. In other words, Vick and his advisers seem aware of the commissioner's expectations and are trying to meet them.
In addition, and from a purely economic standpoint, the NFL may regard Vick's return as beneficial to its bottom line. Still only 28 and just three years removed from the Pro Bowl, Vick likely remains a dynamic player. He may also remain marketable, perhaps very marketable. After-all, in spite of his embarrassing lapses in judgment, including those with legal consequences (e.g., the "Ron Mexico"/genital herpes matter), Vick has a track record for attracting consumers' dollars.
Consider the tens of millions of dollars Vick earned from endorsement deals with Nike, Coca-Cola, Kraft, and other companies -- companies that saw Vick misbehave and then listened to social critics lambast him, and yet they still deemed Vick to be a good investment. Or consider that Vick's #7 Falcons jersey was consistently among the top-selling NFL jerseys during his heyday. Although Vick's prison time and dog abuse crimes have unquestionably and, in some ways, irreversibly tarnished his reputation, the jury is still out as to whether consumers would again find it worthwhile to invest dollars in him.
Even if Goodell reinstates Vick, teams may be wary of employing such a notorious player. Vick's gruesome crimes against dogs generated intense outrage; he may be the nation's most infamous athlete -- and that's saying something. Moreover, wherever Vick goes, certain groups and persons who vehemently advocate for the protection of animals will follow. Teams, along with their coaching staffs and players, may not want to deal with Vick haters and protesters.
Then again, there have been other NFL players with serious legal troubles who readily found employment in the league. Running back Jamal Lewis, for instance, served a four-month prison sentence in 2005 after pleading guilty to charges related to cocaine trafficking. The Baltimore Ravens welcomed him back. They also welcomed back linebacker Ray Lewis after he pled guilty to obstruction of justice in connection with a homicide. The Ravens aren't the only forgiving franchise. Other teams have employed Adam "Pacman" Jones, Travis Henry, Matt Jones, Larry Johnson and other players with various legal woes. At the end of the day, teams seem most interested in pursuing the obvious: winning games.
With that in mind, ask yourself: would teams be interested in Vick had he not committed the dog fighting crimes and served time? A quick perusal of starting and backup quarterbacks around the league yields only one answer: an emphatic yes, particularly with some teams employing the wildcat offense. Plus, teams might gamble that a reinstated Vick would be on his best behavior to please both the NFL and the criminal justice system. Similarly, they might reason that Vick can learn from Randy Moss, Corey Dillon, and other perceived "villains" who rehabilitated their images simply by playing well and cooperating with teammates and coaches.
In addition, Vick's complicated bankruptcy situation -- U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Frank J. Santoro, who is presiding over Vick's bankruptcy litigation, believes that Vick needs to earn between $7.5 million and $8 million a year over the next three years to break even -- supplies another motivation for Vick to get back on the field and stay on it.
Still, a reinstated Vick could remain unemployed. If so, he might consider legal recourse against the NFL, particularly if he uncovers evidence of collusion by teams to keep him out. The collective bargaining agreement between the National Football League Players' Association and the NFL contains anti-collusive language under Article XXVIII. The language has rarely been invoked (the first time being in 2008) and refers generally to when teams act in concert with other teams to deprive players of collectively-bargained rights.
The NFLPA could file a grievance on Vick's behalf with the "special master," who is essentially an arbitrator for labor disputes, asserting that teams have agreed with one another to shun Vick. It seems unlikely the language would actually protect Vick, or that Vick would even pursue such a claim, though Vick's situation is so unusual that it is hard to draw lessons from the past.
Vick could also pursue alternative opportunities in professional football. The United Football League is set to begin later this season and presumably wants to make a splash. Vick could also seek employment in the Canadian Football League, though the league has adopted what is known as the "Ricky Williams Rule," which prevents a CFL team from signing a suspended NFL player (meaning Vick would need to be reinstated by Goodell in order to sign in the CFL). The Arena Football League could be another option. None of these options, however, would offer Vick the kind of salary and exposure that he would obtain in the NFL.
Michael McCann is a law professor at Vermont Law School and the distinguished visiting Hall of Fame Professor of Law at Mississippi College School of Law. He is a former chair of the Association of American Law Schools' Section on Sports and the Law.