NEWPORT NEWS, VA. — Mercy, this looks bad. Real bad. Tuesday's felony indictment of Michael Vick and three cronies oozes details that infuriate, baffle and sicken.
But are they true? Is Vick as stupid, calculating and cruel as the Feds allege? Has he been neck-deep in dog-fighting since joining the NFL in 2001? Did he witness and condone executions of his own pit bulls?
Moreover, what transpires in the considerable lag time between indictment and judgment? Does the league intervene? Might Vick's endorsement partners -- Nike is the most curious case -- bail? Will Vick quarterback the Atlanta Falcons this season, or might owner Arthur Blank, prompted by public outrage and/or personal revulsion, suspend or release his $130-million man?
The temptation is to call for Vick's head, a seasonlong banishment and his departure from Atlanta. After all, it's not only the dog-fighting. It's the critical mass of Ron Mexico, airport incidents in Miami and Atlanta, and his wayward middle finger (the latter problem runs in the family).
Besides, that's the 21st-century, blog-now-think-later world in which we live.
But knee-jerk reactions are too easy and too often unjust.
Should Vick pull time and face suspension if convicted? Damn right. That, however, is a large if.
Yes, the 18 pages of federal charges cite four "cooperating witnesses." But cooperating witnesses can be dubious characters who will do anything to save their own fannies.
I say this after just reading "An Innocent Man," John Grisham's non-fiction, page-turner chronicling murder trials gone terribly wrong in Oklahoma. He tells of rogue prosecutors and lying snitches who sent two innocent men to death row before DNA evidence spared them lethal injection.
Drastic cases, but reason to pause nonetheless.
The specifics of Vick's indictment are no less extreme. They depict a wealthy athlete steeped in a culture that breeds, trains and abuses dogs solely for perverse amusement.
For example, authorities allege Vick bought land in remote Surry County for the expressed intent of staging dogfights. They date the $34,000 purchase to late June 2001, less than two months after Vick signed his first professional contract -- a $62-million deal that included a $3-million signing bonus.
The timing makes you wonder: Did Vick suddenly turn to dog-fighting after cashing in? Or had he been involved during his time at Virginia Tech?
Keep in mind, ESPN in May interviewed an anonymous source who claimed he saw Vick bet $5,000 on a dogfight in 2000, which coincides with Vick's final year at Tech. If true, where did Vick get the five grand? A prospective agent? An agent's minion?
Or was this another case of a scoundrel with an agenda?
The indictment says Vick risked larger amounts after turning pro, as much as $13,000 on one fight. Authorities also detail dates, places and dogs' names.
Most hair-raising: the allegations of executions. Weaker dogs, the document claims, were routinely killed -- by hanging, gunshot, drowning or electrocution.
Those final details could make life miserable for Vick and the Falcons, long before any trial. Protesters outside the stadium? Fan boycotts? Sponsor pressure? Could they force the team to release Vick, salary cap considerations notwithstanding?
And what of Vick himself? After two consecutive pedestrian seasons, he already faced a career crossroads with a new Falcons head coach in Bobby Petrino. Can he handle the additional burden of felony charges and hostile fans?
We're talking uncharted territory here.
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis faced murder charges in 2000 after a knife fight -- police acknowledged he did not wield the weapon -- during Super Bowl week. But the legal intrigue that led to Lewis pleading guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice transpired during the off-season, and Lewis reported to training camp the following summer.
Then NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue took no action against Lewis. Conversely his successor, Roger Goodell, has suspended serial offenders such as Tank Johnson, Pacman Jones and Chris Henry.
Judged strictly on criminal charges, Vick is not a repeat offender, and unless further evidence surfaces, Goodell seems unlikely to drop the hammer before the case is resolved. And resolution could be months away.
By the way, the season after his guilty plea, Lewis was MVP of Baltimore's Super Bowl victory. Michael Vick can only hope for similar reversal.
\o7David Teel is a sports columnist for the Newport News, Va., Daily Press in Michael Vick's hometown. Teel can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com
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Timeline of Michael Vick's legal troubles:
* March 13, 2005: The Washington Post publishes a story in which a screener at an Atlanta airport says a companion of Vick's stole his watch from the security X-ray belt. The screener eventually got the watch back, and no charges were filed.