By Steve Aschburner
May 20, 2009

There will come a moment during the 2009 NFL season when Michael Vick does something athletically extraordinary or competitively remarkable and, reflexively, I will marvel aloud at it.

Then I will look down on the Berber carpeting in our basement TV room and see her. Sophie, our beagle mix, will be lying next to my comfy chair, her paws tucked in front of her, her head down and those big, chocolate-brown eyes staring up at me. Plaintively. And I will shudder.

Watching Vick perform again as an NFL quarterback -- which he surely will do when the federal justice system, the foreman at his court-mandated, $10-an-hour construction job and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell are through with him sometime this fall -- is going to be a pastime most conflicted. A guilty pleasure for some, a saga of redemption for others, a molar-grinding reminder for still others of the casualness with which sports too often excuse bad behavior in the pursuit of winning and cheering and fun.

The battle lines already are drawn, the trenches dug, months before we know where or when Vick's comeback will begin. The year-and-a-half he spent in federal prison, the saturation coverage of the Bad Newz Kennel and Vick's role bankrolling and overseeing the repugnant dog-fighting conspiracy conducted there, and the debate flaring anew as he takes his final shackled steps toward legal and presumably football freedom have provided ample time to choose sides.

Dog lovers (count me in), animal-rights activists and people fed up with the slack cut repeatedly to athletes and other high-profile celebrities for assorted transgressions generally have one set of reactions. Folks who admire Vick for his sports exploits tend toward another set, shared by those who feel he has paid and is paying his proverbial debt to society with each phase of his imposed sentence. This group includes people who believe the former Atlanta Falcons QB has been made an example of because of his race or his lifestyle and -- let's face it -- no small number who think Vick could help their team to greater success on Sundays.

For some Vick critics, nothing short of a significant ban from Goodell -- lifetime or at least another full season -- will mollify them. They would prefer the NFL be the No Felons League. They don't agree with the second or third chances already accorded to drug abusers, drunk drivers, domestic abusers or other peace disturbers. And they see Vick as equally or more despicable, given his criminal activity was ongoing rather than an isolated moment of rage or bad judgment. Getting behind the wheel of a vehicle while intoxicated and taking a human life in a highway accident is a different category of evil from the cruelty and depravity of profiting from and taking pleasure in the serial suffering and killing of another creature.

Let's not pretend, either, that Vick and his sleaze ball partners were planning to, y'know, stop anytime soon had they not been nabbed.

That's why so many people feel the player's apology rang hollow, the fingerprints of p.r. consultants and attorneys all over it, spun just so in these insincere times. They suspect that, given a chance, Vick would be back leering into a bloody ring, cash in his fists, cigar in his teeth, gleam in his eye. Everything we have seen to this point -- the time logged behind bars in Leavenworth, Kan., the visit from Tony Dungy, the home confinement, his agent's claim that football is on "the back burner'' -- has been about rehabbing the image more than rehabbing the perp. To those folks, anyway.

Others will apply a two-step test to Vick's reinstatement: 1) Can he still play?; 2) Will he be playing for my team? At which point, no small number of these folks will purchase their replica No. 7 jerseys (in appropriate new team colors) and cheer, never connecting the dots when they set down Fido's bowl at dinner time.

Me? I tend to trust the process. Law enforcement is set up to collar lowlifes. Courts determine their guilt and sentences. The penal system administers the punishment. The NFL determines a player's or a coach's fitness for re-employment. A particular franchise decides how much to pay that person and whether to accept any risks involved. And then, finally, the public gets to decide whether all of that makes sense, both in a sporting way and in a sense of what's right, fair and just.

Spare me the "America is all about second chances'' rhetoric; plenty of industries bar their doors permanently to practitioners who commit far lesser offenses than the ones to which Vick pled guilty. Lawyers get disbarred, priests get defrocked, journalists who plagiarize get drummed out forever. Private crimes frequently torpedo professional lives. Vick has no right to draw an NFL paycheck.

Then again, most jail sentences do have end dates, after which the criminal returns to society at some level. That's why this doesn't have to fall on Goodell, nor should it. In fact, it really is a market issue, left to pro football fans to decide whether Vick and the team that chooses to sign him is worth rooting for anymore, worth committing sums of money, chunks of time and bundles of emotions. It needn't be a static decision, either; those who opt to shun Vick initially -- extending the justice system's and the NFL's official penalties as they see fit -- might in time soften their stance, if the man's character and deeds (rather than simply his words) truly change.

I'm less troubled by the idea of Vick competing in the NFL than I am by the cocoons that will be quickly spun around him in that cater-to-the-superstar approach of franchises and their support staffs, the blind all-for-one circling of teammates and fan bases. When Mike Tyson got out of prison for rape and returned to the boxing ring, he was in it, good or bad, for himself. Vick will take an entire locker room with him, and we'll almost certainly be subjected to disingenuous claims of unanimity when teammates get asked about his fitness to compete, much less lead. We'll know in our hearts that some factions within the team will be as conflicted about Vick's signing as we are, yet -- driven by coaches, under the guise of unity and to avoid the distractions so dreaded in the NFL -- we will see an entire roster's worth of grown men lining up behind a convicted dog killer. They will diminish themselves in the interest of "team.''

The same, frankly, figures to go on throughout the city of the team that signs him. Maybe not right away -- the PETA folks will have a place to picket, the local talk shows and Web sites will crackle with criticism and energy, national media crews will descend and press their questions. But eventually -- and especially if Vick puts up a 300-yard game or finds the receiver in the back of the end zone late in a fourth quarter -- this could become another Barry Bonds scenario, with one stadium as Vick's PacBell (now AT&T Park). Values rather than disbelief will get suspended, one market's fans seeing up where all the others' see down. It would be just as cold and calculating -- break Henry Aaron's record wearing our team's uniform, Barry! -- and every bit as unseemly.

Until a majority of us see Michael Vick as a changed man, not merely as a freed and available quarterback, this will be another lesson in what price winning. What will the folks who revel in Vick's accomplishments see when they look in the mirror? What will they feel as he rolls out with the football and they glance down at the furry critter at their feet?

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