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LEO, a caramel-colored pit bull with soft brown eyes, greets every visitor to his new home in Los Gatos, Calif., the same way—warmly and playfully, with a tail that won't stop wagging. If Michael Vick walked in, he would get the same welcome, even though Leo was one of the 51 dogs seized by authorities from Vick's infamous Bad Newz Kennels. "His reaction to Michael Vick today would be, Want to have fun? Will you pet me? Can I sniff you?" says Marthina McClay, Leo's new owner. "Canines don't look for revenge. They don't go on Oprah to talk about their rough childhood. They don't hold grudges."
Not so easy for some of us, is it? It's hard to think of Vick without being repulsed anew by the unspeakable cruelty of his dogfighting operation. The stories of drownings, of electrocutions, of savagery masquerading as sport are so sickening that it would be understandable to feel that his punishment should last forever—and in a sense, it will. Vick will live with that awful stain for the rest of his days. But his other sentence, the 23 months in prison at Leavenworth, Kans., on dogfighting-related charges, is nearing its end. Vick has been cleared to move to home confinement in May, and if all goes as expected, he will be a free man and eligible for reinstatement to the NFL by July 20, right around the opening of training camps. It is anyone's guess as to whether commissioner Roger Goodell will allow his return to playing quarterback.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is looking for more than just the words of apology and remorse Vick has offered so far; he must prove that he is a changed man. The organization has urged Goodell to require that Vick submit to psychological testing before being reinstated, including a brain scan that purportedly will reveal whether he has psychopathic tendencies. "We don't think the NFL should just take him at his word," says PETA spokesman Dan Shannon. "We certainly don't. He has offered to do public service statements promoting the humane treatment of animals, and that would be great, but we would need to see some harder evidence from him that this is genuine." If Vick declines such testing or the results indicate that he could still be a danger to animals, would PETA picket any team that acquires him? "We haven't taken anything off the table at this point," says Shannon.
The accuracy of brain-scan techniques in spotting a psychopath is a debate unto itself, as is the question of whether it would be fair to deny Vick the chance to play based on the mere possibility of future misdeeds. Could it be that animal-rights activists and others horrified by Bad Newz simply begrudge him the luxuries of being a pro athlete, that they feel he doesn't deserve to be cheered for anything, ever again? "It's not like this guy's going back to laying brick," says Shannon. "For better or worse, young people look up to well-known athletes as models of behavior. So, yes, it's a little different from a guy who's returning to a nine-to-five job."
For an NFL organization just to bring Vick in for a workout, it will have to withstand not only the possible PETA protests but also the media maelstrom and the disgust of potential ticket buyers. The Falcons plan to trade Vick's rights; already the QB-needy Bucs, Lions and Jets have declared that they have no interest. Last week, a day after coach Mike Singletary said that the 49ers wouldn't completely rule out the possibility of acquiring Vick, the team closed that window with a statement that didn't include the term "10-foot pole," but might as well have.
Such is the unforgiving climate Vick faces. He has been brought to his knees, stripped of his freedom and fortune, and as satisfying as it might feel for some to see him like that, he has been down for as long as the law requires. It's time to let him try to get back up. Vick's return to the NFL shouldn't require that we judge him to be fully redeemed; many of us never will. But we need to acknowledge that as with most other offenders who have fulfilled the terms of their punishment, he ought to be allowed to pursue his old career, if he's still qualified for it.
That's no small if: Vick will be 29 years old by the start of next season, with two years away from football. He may have been erratic on the field, but given his physical skills when he left—in 2006 he threw for 2,474 yards and ran for 1,039—there surely must be one team willing to give him a set of pads and find out how much of his old talent remains.
Perhaps the real change in Vick will come when he finds that the creatures he once treated so cruelly, like Leo, are now far more accepting of him than are most humans. That's the sort of realization that can help a man who so clearly has anger issues. But then, he's not the only one who has them, is he?