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This PR nightmare is in a league of its own

The NFL may wait until a top star's dogfighting charges are resolved. An angry public won't.

July 19, 2007|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

In the hours that followed the federal indictment of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick -- an alleged key player in a Virginia dogfighting operation -- the team's offices were flooded Wednesday with angry phone calls, an Atlanta radio station switched to an all-Vick-all-the-time format, and the national Humane Society's computer server crashed under a deluge of e-mails.

Vick, 27, and three others are accused of violating federal laws against staging dogfights, gambling and engaging in unlawful activities across state lines. According to the indictment, they ran Bad Newz Kennels out of a property the quarterback owns in Surry, Va., and executed pit bulls -- by methods such as hanging, drowning, electrocution, shooting and beating -- that didn't perform well as fighters.

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, characterized the response as "unbelievable," adding, "There's no happiness we're feeling about this, but we're pleased that the public is not tolerant of this, and that there's such enormous revulsion to this kind of conduct."

Vick, the former Virginia Tech star, said after authorities initially raided the property in April that he was rarely at the house and had no idea it had been used in a criminal enterprise. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The Vick case will be the most significant test yet for the NFL under Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has pledged a crackdown to make players and teams more accountable for off-field transgressions.

The league said in a statement that "all concerned should allow the legal process to determine the facts." In a separate statement, the Falcons said they "plan to do the right thing for our club as the legal process plays out."

But in at least in one recent instance, the league suspended a player before his case made it through court. Tennessee Titans defensive back Adam "Pacman" Jones, suspended in April, had at least 10 run-ins with police in his first year in the league.

Vick and his alleged business partners -- Tony Taylor, 34, of Hampton, Va., Purnell Peace, 35, of Virginia Beach and Quanis Phillips, 28, of Atlanta -- all were ordered Wednesday to appear for a bond hearing and then arraignment July 26. That's the same day the Falcons are scheduled to open training camp.

But reaction to Vick's indictment, and the graphic allegations of how the animals were treated, has been swift and severe -- from inside and outside pro football.

"This is going to be a significant blemish on the NFL, no matter what," David Cornwell, a former assistant general counsel for the league, said Wednesday.

The Atlanta-based attorney added that there was nothing the league's new boss "can say or do that's going to make this go away from an image perspective. I just don't believe in degrees of bad -- when it's bad it's bad. And this is bad."

Harry Edwards, a longtime NFL consultant and sociology professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, said, "The Atlanta Falcons and the NFL are going to be confronted with a heck of a decision to make as they enter the season. At what point does the message, image and marketability of the game come into play irrespective of any outcome of a trial?

"What happens when you get literally millions of people who say 'Hanging, shooting and electrocuting of dogs? And we're going to cheer for this guy? We're going to buy shoes from this guy?'

"It's not going to be good enough to say, 'I'm going to go out on the field and do my job as a football player and let my attorney handle it.' "

Meanwhile, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and civil rights activist Al Sharpton were teaming up with officials from PETA on a joint letter sent to the Falcons, NFL and Vick's corporate sponsors, urging them to "stand up for what is right, and speak out against what is wrong."

The letter read, in part, "dogfighting is unacceptable. Hurting animals for human pleasure or gain is despicable. Cruelty is just plain wrong."

PETA President Ingrid Newkirk said, "anyone capable of forcing dogs to fight to the death should be kept away from all vulnerable forms of life, particularly children and animals."

The indictment identifies Vick as a key player in an operation that dated to 2001, just before his rookie season with the Falcons. Listed are at least 30 fights that Vick or other members of the kennel arranged or participated in, including details such as the names of the dogs and the amount of money -- often thousands of dollars -- awarded to the owners of the winners of matches that were frequently fought to the death.

Peace, Phillips and Vick also allegedly executed "approximately eight" dogs that did not perform well during so-called "testing" sessions in April. Later, authorities seized from the property 60 dogs -- most of them pit bulls -- along with treadmills, a stick used to pry fighting animals apart, and a "rape stand" device used to hold down aggressive females for breeding.

It's not the kind of news the NFL wants one of its highest-profile players to make.

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