A man wearing awhite number 7 Michael Vick replica jersey stood defiantly in the gallery of afederal courtroom in Richmond last Thursday, as the Atlanta Falcons' starquarterback pleaded not guilty to charges related to dogfighting. Whatever youthink about the spectator, Shawn Dodson of Lynchburg, Va., the man has a thickskin. As he left the courtroom following the hearing, the 33-year-old Dodsonwas jeered by pet owners and animal-rights activists and other wide swaths ofthe citizenry. "This is crazy," he said.
This is an article from the Aug. 6, 2007 issue
Some would saythat showing support for a 27-year-old multimillionaire who allegedly took partin killing his underperforming dogs by electrocution and drowning is crazy. Butthe circus atmosphere that surrounded the Vick hearing, as well as subsequentcomments about the dogfighting case, prove one thing: In America there arealways divergent points of view.
Well, almostalways. A Save Tim Donaghy group has yet to emerge in response to the ongoingfederal investigation into whether the 40-year-old former NBA referee madecalls to manipulate point totals and conspired with gamblers who had ties toorganized crime (page¬†43). Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, the chairman ofthe House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, wrote to NBAcommissioner David Stern last week, "If the allegations prove true, thiscould be one of the most damaging scandals in the history of Americansports." But there are most assuredly dissenting opinions about the thirdprong of the sports world's ongoing misadventures--the pursuit by presumedsteroid cheat Barry Bonds of Hank Aaron's hallowed home run record, which Bondsremained one short of matching through Monday night.
As the sportsmedia spare no saliva in covering these events--ESPN blanketed the Vick hearingwith a blessed armada that included the NFL Live crew, the Outside the Linescrew and the legal analysis crew--a search for perspective becomes almost asimperative as the search for truth and justice. In the 24/7 news cycle thatholds sway over us, misbehaving athletes and misbehaving referees sometimes getway too much coverage (something they share with freeway car chases and theafter-hours antics of tabloid party queens), and so the wheel of public opiniontakes a reverse spin.
Vick, accused onJuly¬†17 in an 18-page indictment of sponsoring and wagering on dogfightingand of treating his dogs with chilling cruelty, becomes, in more and morecircles, the one who is being wronged. A plane flies over the Falcons' trainingcamp in Flowery Branch, Ga., last Thursday pulling a banner that reads, NEWTEAM NAME? DOG-KILLERS?, and tight end Alge Crumpler says hopefully, "I waswondering when it was going to run out of gas." Denver Nuggets guard AllenIverson, no stranger to run-ins with the law and, like Vick, a native ofsoutheastern Virginia, tells Vick to "keep his head up" and suggeststhat he is being pursued by authorities because there is always a"bull's-eye" on prominent athletes. Former Atlanta coach Dan Reevessays that he would "do anything I could to help Mike."
And while Dodsonwas the only person in a number 7 spotted inside the courtroom, several more soattired held a Vick vigil outside the building. "It was time that someoneshould step up and support him," said Nick Fontecchio, who with two friendsmade the nine-hour drive from Boston to stand by their man. Michael Geary, oneof Fontecchio's pals, called Vick "the most exciting player infootball" and observed that "you never know what he's going to donext." (Insert joke here.) Perhaps this should be viewed as a Kumbayamoment for America: Caucasians from a city known for racial tension headingsouth in support of an African-American.
We've seen asimilar shift regarding Bonds, who hit home run number 754 last Friday night.The fact that the 43-year-old San Francisco Giants slugger is skewered in themedia is the very reason to embrace him more tightly. For the fans at AT&TPark and the paddlers in McCovey Cove last week, the hovering media pack is aswelcome as an invasion of killer bees. The mood at the ballpark can becharacterized thusly: Fans just want to be in attendance when Bonds breaks therecord, the Giants just want Bonds to break the record so the media will leavethem alone, and opponents just want Bonds to break the record because they aresick to death of having to answer questions about a controversy that doesn'tconcern them.
Last week thespotlight fell most harshly on Vick. On Monday, four days after Vick said in astatement that he "looks forward to clearing my good name," acodefendant in the case, Tony Taylor, changed his plea to guilty and signed astatement in which he said that Vick supplied almost all of the money used torun the dogfighting operation and to bet on fights. Taylor said he was notpromised a lighter sentence by prosecutors, but he is now expected to testifyagainst Vick and the two other defendants, Purnell Peace and Quanis Phillips.The four men were partners in Bad Newz Kennels, which operated on a propertyowned by Vick in Surry County, Va., but Taylor was reportedly not as close toVick as the other codefendants and recently was not as involved in the kennel'sbusiness.
The developmentsonly deepened the perception that Vick's chances of playing in 2007 are slim,and not just because NFL commissioner Roger Goodell barred him from attendingtraining camp. The animal-rights groups that have demonstrated outside theFalcons' gates represent a powerful lobby--it's as if the Vick case was the onethey were waiting for. An official from the Humane Society told SI that theserver that handles the organization's online donations crashed after theindictment was released, so vehement was the response to the graphicaccusations it contained.
Plus, Judge HenryE. Hudson has scheduled the trial to start on Nov.¬†26, making it unlikelythat the Falcons would hand an undeniably talented but scatter-armedquarterback the ball just to have him hand it back late in the season as heassumed the lead role in another edition of must-see Court TV. Taking the longview, if Vick is convicted--the maximum punishment for the charges against himis five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000--Goodell's decision on theQB's future playing status will be easy. But if Billy Martin, Vick's celebrityattorney who has represented Monica Lewinsky and former NBA forward JaysonWilliams, arranges a plea that keeps him out of prison, Goodell's choicebecomes much more difficult.
Some of the NFL'scorporate partners have already spoken. Last week Nike suspended its lucrativedeal with Vick, Reebok announced that it would stop selling his jersey, and twotrading card companies (Donruss and Upper Deck) said that his card will nolonger be part of their 2007 sets. Vick's fate with Donruss was hardlysurprising: Ann Powell, the president of the company, comes to work each day inArlington, Texas, accompanied by her five dogs, who have the run of the office.Says a Reebok spokesperson, "The number of e-mails and statements we'regetting from consumers was pretty telling about how disturbing people findthese allegations to be." Reebok does not have a business relationship withVick but is the NFL's official uniform supplier.
That is the DonImus principle at work: Businesses may put up with controversial behavior, butonly until it affects the bottom line.
No one has yetcome out and said that Vick is being prosecuted because he's black, butreporters who have ventured into Vick's hometown of Newport News, Va., findalmost unanimous support for him among African-American residents. No doubtthey identify with him as a native son; perhaps they are also more acutelyaware of instances of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. TheVirginians cite Vick's donations of school supplies, athletic uniforms and airconditioners to the underprivileged. "There should be more role models likehim," a woman named Misha Brown told the Associated Press.
The notednewspaper pundit Deion Sanders came close to excusing Vick in a July 22 columnin The News-Press of Fort Myers, Fla., seemingly referencing his own black,Southern roots. "Some people enjoy proving they have the biggest, toughestdog on the street," wrote Sanders, the former NFL and MLB star who is nowan analyst for NFL Network. "I bet Vick loves the dogs that were thebiggest and the baddest. Maybe he identified with them in some way. You canstill choose to condemn him, but I'm trying to take you inside his mind so youcan understand where he might be coming from." Sanders also echoedsentiments previously expressed by former Dallas Cowboys running back EmmittSmith that Vick is being persecuted because of his fame while the ringleadersin the dogfighting business go unpursued. "The only thing I can gather fromthis situation is that we're using Vick," wrote Sanders.
Race is an issueas well with Bonds, who is the subject of an ongoing federal grand-juryinvestigation into perjury and tax-evasion charges. Polls consistently showthat black baseball fans are more likely than white fans by more than two toone to look favorably on Bonds's quest for 756 and much more likely to think hehas been treated unfairly by the media. The Donaghy matter didn't have obviousracial overtones, though comedian Lewis Black did note on The Daily Show lastweek, "Whoever thought it would be a white guy who would mess up theNBA?"
But the meremention of race and steroids and indictments and gambling was enough to sourthe stomach of many American sports fans on these hot summer days--especiallythat of baseball superfan Bud Selig. Still, the commissioner finally announcedon July 24 that he would attend San Francisco's games until Bonds broke Aaron'srecord--except for last weekend, when he was in Cooperstown for the Hall ofFame induction ceremonies. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on yourperspective), Bonds failed to homer on Saturday or Sunday, giving Selig theopportunity to rejoin the Giants for their road swing through Los Angeles andSan Diego.
Looking at thebig picture, at a time when American soldiers are dying daily in a godforsakencivil war thousands of miles away, well, perhaps it is time to turn down thevolume on Vick, Bonds and Donaghy. "If you look at each of these thingscarefully, you realize that they are not going to have any measurable impact onthe public's affection for and allegiance to those major sports," says NealPilson, the former president of CBS Sports who now runs a sports consultingbusiness. "We throw around words like decay and deteriorate, but there aremore people watching, listening and logging on to sports than ever inhistory."
Fair enough. Butlet's also remember that there have to be many sets of eyes on our games (and,obviously, not just referees' eyes) to assure us that they are not degraded bybad people doing bad things. Addressing the National Association of SportsOfficials at its 25th annual convention in Denver on Sunday, founder andpresident Barry Mano reached back to 17th-century Spanish philosopher BaltasarGraciàn to find a suitable way to frame the issues of the day. "One breathof scandal," Mano said, "freezes much honorable sweat."
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