Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick is having the best season… (Matt Slocum, AP )
Reporting from Washington and Honolulu — A standout season has done plenty to calm the controversy surrounding quarterback Michael Vick. But President Obama's praise of the Philadelphia Eagles for giving the convicted dogfighter a second chance has brought new energy to an old firestorm.
"This is a nation of football lovers," said Lisa Lange, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. She also said Obama was underestimating the negative reaction his comments would provoke. "It is also a nation of dog lovers."
The subject of Vick, whose signing by the National Football League team in August 2009 sparked protests from animal lovers across the U.S., came up in a recent phone call between Obama and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie as the president praised the team's ambitious plans to power its stadium with alternative energy.
While discussing Lurie's November announcement to add hundreds of wind turbines and solar panels to Lincoln Financial Field, Obama also commended him for giving Vick a second chance, according to Peter King of NBC and Sports Illustrated.
In August 2007, Vick pleaded guilty to running a dogfighting operation, in a case that included graphic descriptions of dogs being hanged and tortured to death. He served 19 months in prison and was suspended by the NFL.
Upon his release in May 2009, Vick was mentored by former NFL head coach Tony Dungy, who ultimately testified to Vick's changed ways. The Eagles signed Vick to a one-year contract, then exercised an option for this season.
A White House statement Tuesday cast Obama's comments as consistent with the president's view that "individuals who have paid for their crimes should have an opportunity to contribute to society again."
But Bill Smith, the founder of Main Line Animal Rescue in the Philadelphia area, bristled at Obama's characterization that the Eagles' signing of Vick was motivated by wanting to give a convicted felon a second chance.
"If he couldn't throw a football, he wouldn't have had a second chance," said Smith, who organized a campaign last season to collect food for animal shelters every time Vick was sacked on the field. "This isn't about giving anyone a second chance; it's about who can make the Eagles organization more money."
Once the NFL's highest-paid player, Vick played the last two seasons under a court-approved bankruptcy agreement brought on by his legal woes. He has led the Eagles to a playoff berth and the NFC East division title and is having the best season of his career. On Tuesday, he was selected for the Pro Bowl.
He also has spent the last 17 months doing volunteer work for the Humane Society and various Philadelphia animal rights groups, but critics say the story of redemption being portrayed in the City of Brotherly Love is more about Vick's play than his efforts to rehabilitate himself.
"If the president truly believed in second chances, he would have adopted a dog from a shelter," Smith said.
In a statement, White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton acknowledged that Obama and Lurie discussed "other issues" beyond the green initiatives.
"He of course condemns the crimes that Michael Vick was convicted of," Burton said.
As part of his probation, Vick has volunteered with the Humane Society and spoken to children about the evils of animal abuse. The Eagles also have donated money to animal shelters in the Philadelphia area.
Those efforts gave Vick a reprieve from some animal rights groups.
"As long as [Vick] is focusing on playing football and not abusing animals, we will focus our attention on those who are being cruel to animals," said Lange, the PETA spokeswoman.
But Vick's detractors have not forgotten the viciousness of his crimes. He riled activists this month when he told NBC News that he "would love to get another dog in the future. I think it would be a big step for me in the rehabilitation process."
Vick is not allowed to own a dog while he is on probation, and PETA wants the restriction extended when he is up for review in 2012. In the same way convicted pedophiles are not allowed to be alone with children, PETA's board says, it believes convicted animal abusers should be denied unsupervised access to pets.
"Children and animals are completely defenseless to an abuser," Lange said.