For all the excitement and enjoyment pro football provided most weeks, 2007 will go down as the darkest year the league has endured. In the months between those murders, Tennessee Titans cornerback Pacman Jones was involved in a strip-club brawl, which was followed by a shooting that left a club manager paralyzed; Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson was jailed on gun charges; and over a span of eight months, America witnessed the astounding plummet of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. When news broke in April that investigators had found evidence of a large-scale dogfighting operation on his property in rural Virginia, Vick, then 26, was the picture of pomposity. Called before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, he professed his innocence; even after a federal indictment, he remained defiant.
Only when evidence mounted and his accomplices began to turn on him did Vick appear contrite. In August he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to operate a dogfighting enterprise. On Nov. 19 he moved into a jail cell in Warsaw, Va. And on Dec. 10 the man whose NFL replica jersey once outsold all others stood in court in prison garb to hear his sentence: 23 months in federal prison. He still faces state animal cruelty charges in Virginia.
Whether the players were victims or perpetrators, these cases stirred discussion about race and class and about violence and athletes. Some said that in the case of Vick, you have to look at where he came from; others said it was time for professionals to stop making excuses and be men. But is this good, useful talk—or just good talk radio? While the games go on and we ponder that question, this much we do know: Williams left behind a seven-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter, and Taylor an 18-month-old daughter.