Friday, August 24, 2007

It's just business, baby.

It looks like Michael Vick won’t be making things easy for the NFL. Reports indicate that Vick will plead guilty to interstate commerce charges but when it comes to killing dogs and gambling he maintains his innocence. That means there’s a possibility that Michael Vick will be available to play next season.

Michael Vick was essentially put on administrative leave by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. It wasn’t a formal punitive action. Simply put: the league couldn’t afford to keep Michael Vick active while criminal proceedings were under way. Technically the NFL had no grounds to do this and Vick could have challenged this decision but he couldn’t afford the additional publicity. A judge and jury would not take kindly to somebody who didn’t have the good sense to step aside when asked. Of course that was when the NFL expected a lengthy trial.

The NFL had it easy. The trial would last well past the point at which Vick could return to his team and the final outcome would absolve the NFL of the responsibility tied to rendering a decision on Vick’s playing status. If found guilty Vick would do a couple of years in prison rendering a return to football a moot point but if he was exonerated in a court of law the NFL could welcome him back with open arms. But the reality of our legal system came back to bite the NFL.

The NFL has no formal policy on interstate commerce or dog fighting. Goodell might be able to impose a short suspension under the conduct provision but it’s important to note that the recent suspensions imposed by Goodell have no legal standing as there is no policy outlining conduct provisions. Chris Henry, Pacman Jones, and Tank Johnson are serving their suspensions because Goodell and other league officials have convinced them that it’s the right thing to do but nobody has challenged them. Yet. That could become an issue if Vick is a free man come next August.

Goodell’s easy out was illegal gambling. If the feds forced Vick to plead guilty to illegal gambling then the league had precedent to suspend Vick for life but Vick isn’t copping to placing bets on the dogs. That means Goodell has to make something up. He’s been pretty good at that to this point but suspending relatively unknown players with a history of poor judgment is not the same as putting the screws to a guy who was once an officially licensed icon. Vick was one of the few players tapped to be the face of the NFL and he probably won’t go down with out a fight.

For Goodell it’s not personal. It’s not even a question of right and wrong. The stiffened disciplinary procedures have little to do with morality. Everything the NFL does is about money. It’s dollars and cents. The league doesn’t care about athletes run amuck unless those athletes create an image problem that hurts the bottom line. Rules aren’t imposed to improve safety or reduce injury, they are drafted to keep revenue flowing. That’s why all of the rules seem to protect quarterbacks. Quarterbacks are marketable because every play runs through them and the casual fan identifies more readily with quarterbacks. That’s why Peyton Manning is the most recognizable player in the NFL. He’s the best player at the most popular position. And that’s exactly why Michael Vick is drawing so much attention now.

It’s ironic that Fred McCrary, Algee Crumpler and Stephon Marbury have come out and voiced support for Vick. They wouldn’t attract this much attention if they were facing the same charges. Vick is the victim of his own popularity. He was not only a quarterback in the NFL but he was one of the more marketable quarterbacks.

At one point he was more popular than Peyton Manning but his inconsistent play and reported clashes with coaches made him a little less appealing. Some might point to race but the reality is that Vick was a mediocre quarterback with remarkable athletic ability. Based solely on his quarterbacking, Vick probably would have been cut years ago but his ability to run made him a star. A highly paid star at that.

It’s often stated that quarterbacks get all of the credit when their team does well but that they also take an undue amount of blame when their teams fair poorly. That’s a reality every quarterback accepts. They know that all eyes are on them and that everything they do, on an off the field, will be scrutinized and discussed. Tom Brady stirred up a mild controversy when he was photographed wearing a Yankees cap while shopping with his fiancée. Peyton Manning was lambasted a few years ago for criticizing his linemen after a Colts loss and Dante Culpepper was cut by the Vikings for being linked to the infamous “party boat” scandal. Mind you, Culpepper wasn’t found guilty of anything but the fact that he was there was enough to wear out his welcome in Minnesota.

So it’s not surprising that Vick is drawing all of this attention and that’s what makes this hard for the NFL. It doesn’t matter if the public outrage is fair. The NFL is a business and it has to make a business decision. If allowing Michael Vick back on the field will cost the league millions of dollars they have to try to keep him out. The league has to keep Michael Vick at arm’s length until the public is ready to accept him.

Michael Vick is entitled to due process. He’s entitled to his day in court and after he pays his debt to society he is entitled to a second chance. However, the second chance doesn’t necessarily mean he’s entitled to playing in the NFL again. Playing in the NFL is a privilege, not a right. The NFL has already lost money because it bet on Michael Vick. The Atlanta Falcons traded a pretty solid back-up quarterback to the Texans to demonstrate their commitment to Vick and he betrayed that trust. He associated with criminals and engaged in illegal activity. While he’s the only one facing a prison sentence, the NFL and the Falcons paid a price, why should they be compelled to pay it again?

The NFL is a business. Michael Vick knew that when he became on of the highest paid players in league history. Every player in the league realizes this. The NFL is not interested in justice or morality. Michael Vick is bad for business. Companies all over the country deny opportunities to convicted criminals, often on a case by case basis. They analyze the risks and consider the rewards. Second chances don’t come easy. Why should the NFL be any different?

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