By Jim Litke, AP Sports Columnist
Michael Vick has more to worry about at the moment than just what Roger Goodell thinks. Or so it would seem.
Three of his acquaintances already cut their own deals and told the feds most of what they know about the goings-on at "Bad Newz Kennels," leaving Vick to fend for himself. He faces a $250,000 fine and a year in jail if he pleads guilty, and as many as five years if he fights the charges in court and loses. And that's assuming he can avoid state charges in Virginia and that the federal grand jury that convenes Monday doesn't add racketeering charges, either of which would raise the stakes considerably.
On top of that, the Falcons could decide to go after some or all of the $22 million in signing-bonus money Vick already pocketed to cover the final three years left on his contract. That would require owner Arthur Blank to swallow hard and keep Vick on the roster, a smart business move, but a potential public-relations disaster.
No matter how the situation plays out in Atlanta, Vick's chances of ever playing another down in the NFL are already down to slim and none.
That's where Goodell comes in. If there is a light at the end of the tunnel - and calling it a flicker at the moment is hardly an exaggeration - the commissioner might be the one person capable of shining it.
He's already barred Vick from taking part in training camp while the league conducts its own investigation, but reserved any final judgment until after the legal process has run its course.
"We're going to do what we always said we were going to do, which is rely on the facts," Goodell said during a tour of training camps last week. "If there is some type of a plea agreement, then we will obviously take the time to understand what that plea is and we'll see how it fits into our personal conduct (policy)."
There are a number of very good reasons why the commissioner should crumple Vick's future like a paper ball, toss it in the garbage can under his desk and be rid of the problem.
First, Vick almost certainly lied to Goodell when he denied any involvement in the dogfighting ring, let alone financing the operation and personally taking part in the grisly executions of animals that lost. As part of a plea agreement, Vick would have to own up to all those things and perhaps illegal gambling or associating with gamblers, which under NFL policy can get a player banned for life.
Second, the league in general and the commissioner in particular has little to gain by letting Vick put on a uniform again. America loves its pets, and the outrage the indictments sparked outside NFL headquarters continued throughout opening day at the Falcons' training camp, with sign-wielding protesters at the gates and a fly-over by a plane trailing a banner that read: "New team name? Dog Killers?" That was only a taste of what Vick's next employer can expect.
Third, plenty of league personnel directors and general managers already regarded Vick as poison, a me-first personality with a questionable work ethic who would cause problems as a second-string quarterback and wasn't worth the trouble he caused even before this. If reason No. 2 required Goodell to risk his credibility with the public, No. 3 could get him in hot water with a lot of the old-school NFL types who think Vick deserves everything he gets for heaping so much shame on the game.
But the bottom-line is this: Unless he's found innocent of all the charges, Vick is going to be punished plenty. Incarceration is more merciful than the fate of the pit bulls he allegedly helped kill.
Under a best-case scenario - for Vick, anyway - he works out a plea agreement with prosecutors, then pulls out his cell phone, apologizes to Goodell and begs for a chance to return when the time is right. Then he goes to jail for a year, sits out a year under suspension, proves all the while that he's deserving of another go-round in the NFL and attempts it in 2009 when he's still only 29.
But Vick better not waste much time deliberating or dialing. Goodell also said last week that if a plea agreement were reached, he could rule on the case in less than two weeks. The guess here is the commissioner's decision will be influenced by how quickly and completely Vick accepts responsibility for his deeds and then makes amends.
Last December, a few months after he took over as commissioner, Goodell dropped by The Associated Press' headquarters in New York for a get-acquainted meeting and sat for a 20-minute interview. The session was dominated by questions about the Cincinnati Bengals' long-running law-and-order saga and Goodell made clear he planned to be firm dealing with players who broke the law.
And he has. Ask Pacman Jones, Chris Henry or Tank Johnson about that. Yet almost every phrase that Goodell used in December that included the word "punishment" was followed quickly by another that included the word "help.
At the moment, punishment dominates every conversation about Vick. But down the road, after he's paid his debt, he'll need plenty of help, too.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org
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