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Gridiron justice

The NFL has cracked down recently on players' off-field misconduct. How will it handle Michael Vick?

July 25, 2007

Nfl commissioner Roger Goodell didn't help the Atlanta Falcons' championship prospects this week when he ordered the team's star quarterback, Michael Vick, to stay away from training camp when it opens Thursday. But then, Vick has somewhere else to be that day: He's scheduled to be arraigned in Richmond, Va., on charges of conspiring to stage pit-bull fights and gamble on the results.

Goodell's action bought time for the National Football League to ponder what to do about Vick, who was one of four people indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with a brutal, high-stakes dogfighting venture in southeastern Virginia. It's a delicate situation for the NFL: The allegations against Vick are stomach-churning -- among other things, he is accused of being involved in the drowning, hanging and electrocution of more than half a dozen dogs -- yet they are merely allegations. Like anyone else under arrest or indictment, Vick is innocent until proved otherwise in court. At the same time, his troubles only add to the damage inflicted on the league by a seemingly relentless drumbeat of stories about players being arrested, involved in shootings or even serving time.

Goodell, who took over as commissioner last year, has rightly tried to change what had been an overly permissive attitude at league headquarters toward players' troubles off the field. In April, he announced a toughened policy against those who ran afoul of the law, as well as against teams that didn't take appropriate disciplinary steps. He's already enforced the new policy on three players who'd had frequent run-ins with the law, including Adam "Pacman" Jones, who is suspended for a year and is awaiting trial on felony charges. Now, despite Vick's star power, Goodell needs to hold the Falcons' quarterback to the same standards.

While the league and its lawyers review Vick's case, he's been put on what amounts to a paid leave of absence. That's an appropriate middle ground, given his uncertain fate in court. But Goodell needs to make a more definitive move soon, before the regular season begins and Vick's $6-million salary kicks in.

One complicating factor is that the NFL's union contract limits the penalty to a four-game suspension without pay, which is shorter than the maximum under Goodell's policy. And Falcons owner Arthur Blank, a philanthropist in Atlanta who has tied the team closely to his charitable work, said Tuesday that he preferred a four-game suspension for Vick to paid leave.

Blank, who may not want Vick back, won't move until the NFL decides how to apply Goodell's new policy. The league should ask the same question it asked in the Jones case: whether the facts not in dispute -- such as Vick's ownership of the property in Virginia where investigators found dead and maimed pit bulls and dog-fighting paraphernalia -- amount to conduct detrimental to the league. After all, what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the Falcon.

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