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Of course, there are no relatives of the victims of Vick's barbarity to offer such pleas of mercy, but there's another question in his case: Shouldn't the punishment he has already served be an even greater argument for mitigation? Unlike Smith and Heatley, it can't be said that the QB has gotten off lightly. He pleaded guilty to a felony, dogfighting conspiracy, and served the full sentence. He paid $928,000 in restitution for the care of the confiscated dogs. He lost two years in the prime of his career, at a cost of $40 million in salary, bonuses and endorsements. He has filed for bankruptcy. When Goodell makes his ruling, it would seem those would come under the heading of relevant factors.
There is another adjudicating body the commissioner will no doubt consider as he selects his disciplinary response, one not listed in the NFL's conduct policy: the court of public opinion. The most prominent voices speaking to the Vick case are still those from PETA and the SPCA, and it's not mercy they want. "[Vick] should be given a brain scan that will show if he's capable of remorse," says Ingrid Newkirk, the president of PETA, adding that the National Institute of Health has shown that there's an area of the brain that relates to empathy. "If the NFL is going to consider him, they owe it to themselves to find out if he's capable of remorse. Without that, you don't know if I'm sorry are just words or mean anything. If he can't show empathy, he shouldn't come back."
Vick's first act of self-preservation—lying to police, reporters and Goodell by saying he was unaware of the dogfighting operation on his property—was a serious misstep. But as the facts became harder to deny and codefendants started to flip, he owned up and began to lay the groundwork for forgiveness. Following his guilty plea in U.S. District Court in Richmond in August 2007, he apologized, saying, "I take full responsibility for my actions," and asserted that "dogfighting is a terrible thing." He specifically addressed "all the young kids out there" and said he was sorry for his "immature acts." He also asked "for forgiveness and understanding as I move forward to bettering Michael Vick the person, not the football player."
The evidence is overwhelming that, should Goodell reinstate Vick and should Vick continue to be contrite, the football player, at least, will be forgiven by his fans. Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Brett Myers was arrested and charged with assault and battery after he punched his wife on a downtown Boston street while they argued in June 2006. Myers's wife not only posted his bail but also insisted that she didn't want him prosecuted. The charge was subsequently dismissed over the objection of the prosecutor. But what Philadelphia fans remember is that Myers pitched strongly in the last half of the 2008 season as the Phillies went on to win the World Series.
In Vick's case habeas corpus—literally, you must have the body—takes on new meaning. He's an extraordinary athlete, even by NFL standards, and at 29 he has a better-than-even chance of helping some franchise for several years. (The Atlanta Falcons, for whom he played six seasons, released him on June 12.) Assuming Vick's not horribly out of shape, his speed, elusiveness and arm strength (if not his accuracy) will no doubt entice a team or two to give him a look, especially with the high demand for run-pass threats to pilot the trendy wildcat offense.
"It only takes one team to sign him, and he's back playing," says Andrew Brandt, a former executive with the Green Bay Packers, now a lecturer in Penn's Wharton Sports Business Initiative. "But it would be an organizational decision. The owner, the coaches, the community relations department. It would not be taken lightly."
Wherever Vick lands—and the four-team United Football League, which debuts in October, is holding a spot for him in Orlando—protestors are likely to land there with him. But if Vick is successful, it's a safe bet that the outrage expressed on blogs, on talk radio and outside his new team's facilities won't be echoed inside the home stadium. NBA guard Latrell Sprewell was a coach-choking thug in the Bay Area until he brought his 20 points a game to New York, where suddenly his jersey flew off the shelves as he led his team to the Finals. Nor will Vick have much to fear from the men in the lockers next to him. For all the Sturm und Drang about bad behavior in sports, you will seldom if ever hear an athlete take a stand against a teammate, no matter how repugnant an act that teammate might have committed. "It ain't that you don't care about the crime," says New York Mets outfielder Gary Sheffield, speaking about Vick. "There are dog lovers, and you feel compassion for that. But when he steps into this room, he's my teammate and I'm going to do whatever it takes to support him. That's what teammates are for. You become a family."
As one Phillies veteran puts it, "In the middle of the game you're not out there thinking, He killed dogs."
Vick's instances of prior or additional misconduct? They have been few, and one case was apparently overblown. In January 2007, four months before Bad Newz Kennels became big news—and a few months after he made headlines for flipping off Falcons fans who had booed him—Vick was stopped by Miami International Airport security officials, who seized a water bottle from him that smelled like marijuana and had a hidden compartment. Testing on the bottle revealed no trace of drugs, and Vick later explained that the compartment was for hiding jewelry.
Since taking office, Goodell has suspended 15 players for violations of the NFL's personal conduct policy, with infractions ranging from disorderly conduct to assault. In December 2006, police found six unregistered firearms in the suburban Chicago home of Bears defensive lineman Tank Johnson, a violation of his probation on a 2005 gun charge. He spent 60 days in jail and was suspended for eight games. Following Adam Jones's yearlong suspension in 2007—the harshest sentence under the personal conduct policy of Goodell's tenure—he was suspended again last October for six games. Nevertheless, Johnson and Jones found a team that could use their services: the Dallas Cowboys.