Six years ago, he was the young face of the NFL, a superstar who would help carry the league into the next generation. Michael Vick was a human highlight reel, gifted beyond belief, a quarterback who reached our living rooms like none other simply because he performed like none other.
He was everything the NFL wanted, a true entertainer, talented and marketable, an African-American passer who unlike most before him tapped into inner cities and suburbs just the same. Look around and count the people who wore his No. 7 Atlanta Falcons jersey. They weren't all Falcons fans. They weren't all football fans.
They were Michael Vick fans.
In time, the legal system will determine whether Vick ran a gruesome dog-fighting operation on his Virginia property, as alleged in an 18-page federal indictment handed up this week. He and three others charged face six years in prison if convicted.
At minimum, the accusations against Vick force us to examine a dark subculture not often discussed at the dinner table. Training dogs to fight to the death is one thing. Betting on them is another. But what kind of sick subhuman gets his jollies from hanging, drowning, electrocuting, shooting or beating to death any animal? The feds claim that's what Vick and his cohorts did, away from the glare of packed NFL houses, for years.
The ever-popular "wrong place at the wrong time" excuse probably isn't going to fly when investigators find witnesses ready to testify that Vick wasn't just a wealthy bystander financing the operation but a longtime participant. Or when they confiscate equipment commonly used for dogfighting along his bloodstained property.
Vick will have his day in criminal court, which could be less damning than the Court of Public Opinion. You can almost hear endorsement contracts being torn up by the companies who once lined up for Vick, not to mention the 10-year deal worth $130 million he signed 2 1/2 years ago with the Falcons.
And that's a big problem for the NFL. Vick in just a few years has descended from precisely what the NFL needed to exactly what the league claims it will no longer tolerate. He's become the face of the NFL all right, a poster boy for the league's growing image problem.
It will be interesting to see how Commissioner Roger Goodell handles this one. He's been on a mission to clean up off-the-field behavior. Chris Henry was suspended after getting arrested four times. Tank Johnson was suspended for violating probation. Pacman Jones is gone for the season after repeatedly running into trouble, and he wasn't convicted of anything.
If they're the standard, Goodell can't turn soft against Vick. Henry, Johnson and Jones barely move the needle on the image scale. Vick is one of the most popular figures and money-producers in the league. If convictions follow the charges, he should be banned for life. He couldn't complain about cruel and unusual punishment now, could he?
Nothing has grown more tiresome in sports than athletes making gazillions of dollars and not respecting a penny. Guys, how about feeding the hungry? How about setting up programs for underprivileged children? How about assisting the disabled?
In fact, there are players across the league doing precisely that and more. In a perfect world, they would be the face of the NFL. Instead, they're overshadowed by the selfish and stupid.
The irony in this is that animal rights groups for years have been looking for big names to help their cause. Finally, they found their superstar. He's the fresh face they needed to take the next step. He's none other than Michael Vick.