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M ichael Vick is nervous, more nervous than he ever was in the NFL. He sits across from commissioner Roger Goodell, both men dressed in tasteful, conservative suits. This is nothing new for the commissioner. Over the last three years Goodell has met with other players who fell out of line. And he has even met with Vick before, a session in late April 2007 when Vick denied having anything to do with the goings-on at 1915 Moonlight Road in Smithfield, Va. Then, three months later, he was charged with one count of dogfighting.
It's late July now, and Vick has recently completed a 23-month federal sentence that included a long stretch at Leavenworth and finished under house arrest at his five-bedroom home in Hampton, Va. And while, unlike a pit bull thrown into a ring, Vick may not be fighting for his life, he is fighting for his future. He is not sure how, but he knows he must show deep remorse for what he has done. That is what Goodell is looking for as he stares into Vick's eyes.
While Goodell has not tipped his hand, the NFL's personal conduct policy gives him wide latitude. He can show lenience toward Vick. He can also lay down the hammer. "Discipline may take the form of fines, suspension or banishment from the League...," it reads. "The specifics of the disciplinary response will be based on the nature of the incident, the actual or threatened risk to the participant and others, any prior or additional misconduct (whether or not criminal charges were filed) and other relevant factors."
So how do these words apply in the Vick case? And what are his prospects of making it back on the field for the 2009 season and continuing a career that's been both erratically spectacular and spectacularly erratic? Since taking over for Paul Tagliabue in September 2006, Goodell has vowed to crack down on miscreants and lawbreakers, saying that representing the NFL is a privilege, not a right. He backed that up in April 2007 by making the personal conduct policy tougher and at the same time suspending Tennessee Titans cornerback Adam Jones for the entire 2007 season and Cincinnati Bengals wideout Chris Henry eight games for multiple run-ins with police; of such penalties, Vick should be wary. But if the commissioner takes into account Vick's time served and financial loss versus the relatively light punishment doled out to other athletes who committed various criminal acts, then Goodell's ruling should be this: Michael Vick is reinstated to the NFL, and—if the quarterback does not violate the conditions of his supervised release—he is allowed back soon.
Vick's systematic cruelty to animals makes the nature of the incident novel among athletes—but that doesn't necessarily make it worse than more common forms of their criminal behavior. Many players, from subs to stars, have remained in uniform despite committing a range of felonies, including sexual assault, drug trafficking, armed robbery, gun possession, gambling, domestic violence and various automobile-related offenses that include manslaughter.
Consider Washington Nationals outfielder Elijah Dukes, whose rap sheet includes at least six arrests since 1997. (There was no arrest for an alleged voice mail to his estranged wife threatening to kill her.) Dukes pleaded no contest to a battery charge in one case and to marijuana possession in another; the other charges were dropped or are sealed. Yet he has never been disciplined by Major League Baseball for his off-field behavior, and at least publicly, the only organizational condemnation (including a $500 fine) was triggered when Dukes showed up late for a team workout earlier this season. (He was coming from a paid Little League appearance.)
Or consider those whose transgressions have cost human lives. In October 1998, St. Louis Rams defensive end Leonard Little, his blood-alcohol content nearly twice the legal limit, crashed into another car, killing its driver, a married woman with a 15-year-old son. The team placed Little on paid leave for the rest of the season, after which he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. He received a 90-day sentence, which could be served at a work house at any time within a 12-month period. The NFL suspended him for the first eight games in 1999 for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
Denver Nuggets guard J.R. Smith racked up five suspensions of his license for speeding and reckless driving in one year—and that was before he ran a stop sign in June 2007 and was struck by an oncoming vehicle, killing his best friend, Andre Bell, a passenger in the back seat. But Smith was never indicted for vehicular homicide, and though his license was suspended because of the accident and twice thereafter, he has never been suspended by the NBA for a behind-the-wheel offense. (That may change, however, after a New Jersey municipal judge last week sentenced Smith to 30 days in jail for reckless driving in the '07 accident.)
In September 2003 the reckless driving of Dany Heatley, then a star for the Atlanta Thrashers, caused a crash that killed teammate Dan Snyder, a passenger in his Ferrari. Heatley, who pleaded guilty to second-degree vehicular homicide, received a sentence of three years' probation. He missed all but 31 games of the 2003--04 season but only because of the knee injury he suffered in the accident. The NHL did not penalize him.
Snyder's family offered forgiveness and asked for lenience for Heatley; likewise, the family of Bell remained steadfastly in Smith's corner, saying, "Our hearts and respect go out to J.R. and his family." When those who have lost the most are asking for mitigated punishments—in acceptance of the fact that the deaths were accidental—isn't it more difficult for the leagues to assume a hard-line stance?