Michael Vick's fall from grace has been perhaps the most surprising and disturbing "sports" story of the year. There have been athletes whose falls have been almost as precipitous. But seldom has there been one as pointless, unsympathetic and dispiriting—an athlete who, at the pinnacle of his game, tossed away his life for a debased and dehumanizing pursuit like dogfighting.
Yesterday Vick stood in federal court in Richmond, Va., and took what he clearly knew was coming: a stiff 23-month prison sentence, the longest meted out to any of the confederates in this dogfighting conspiracy. In his statement Vick apologized to the court and to his family. His brother Marcus was there, comforting his mother as she buried her face and wept. After U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson told the former Atlanta Falcons star quarterback that he owed more of an apology "to the millions of young people who looked up to you," Vick acknowledged that he had used "poor judgment," perhaps the most conspicuous understatement in the courtroom today. "I'm willing to deal with the consequence and accept responsibility for my actions," Vick said.
The sentence fell between the maximum of five years that Vick faced and the 12 to 18 months recommended by the prosecution. But after two of Vick's codefendants had already received stiffer sentences, today's sentence for the man who bankrolled the Bad Newz Kennels operation certainly didn't surprise anybody. "None of this could have taken place without him," says Jerry Reisman, a Long Island sports and entertainment lawyer. Under federal sentencing guidelines Vick could be released after 20 months. He has made it clear that he hopes someday to return to the NFL. Having reported to jail early in anticipation of sentencing, Vick could be released in July 2009—right in time for NFL training camp. He will have just turned 29 years old, prime time for NFL quarterbacks.
Prison, though, is hardly an ideal place for a pro athlete to maintain his skills—and only in Hollywood's imagination could Vick expect to hone his game by playing on Burt Reynolds's team. Mike Tyson was clearly a shell of his former self as a boxer when he left prison at 28 after serving three years for rape. But Tyson was stumbling downhill even before he did time, having lost his title two years before to Buster Douglas. The more relevant boxing example is Muhammad Ali, who lost three years off his career, from ages 25 to 28, because of his refusal to serve in the military in Vietnam. Ali regained his championship form and went on to deliver the greatest performances of his lustrous career. The NFL is filled with quarterbacks who have made successful comebacks from debilitating injuries, as well as with aging quarterbacks who continue to flourish despite fewer physical skills. Vick, however, has been a quarterback who relied heavily—some would say too heavily—on his raw talents. If he can't maintain them at their current levels or develop compensating skills, Vick's NFL future may never be quite as starry again.
Of course, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has not indicated whether the league intends to suspend Vick beyond the two seasons he will have missed. But it is hard to imagine why the NFL would feel the need to throw an additional flag after the lengthy prison sentence. And that doesn't even take into account the financial punishment: the criminal scandal has cost Vick, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, an estimated $142 million in salary, bonuses and endorsements.
While the NFL has in the past permitted players who have committed crimes—even heinous crimes—to play, seldom has a player of Vick's stature attained such notoriety and then attempted a comeback. The images of dogs being hanged, drowned, electrocuted and beaten to death will linger, bringing vocal protests should Vick attempt to return to the NFL. On top of that, the NFL is particularly skittish about gambling, which is at the heart of the dogfighting racket.
Still, the NFL hardly needs to do anything more. This sordid tale is already a lesson in American justice for all those who, with good reason, believe that athletes have been allowed to stand above the law. And it can become an even more powerful lesson if Vick can rise above it and reclaim his life. America has always had a vested interest in redemption. "We have forgiven pretty much everybody except O.J.," says attorney Reisman. "And he never did time or any penance." Vick certainly will do the former and appears more than willing to do the latter. And that seems to be all we can reasonably ask.