September 3, 2007
Bob Cohn, Washington Times
Bob Cohn - Michael Vick is heading for unknown territory and not just prison. If and when the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback returns to the NFL, he will face certain challenges that probably no prominent American athlete ever has encountered.
Not only must Vick prove he can still play after an absence the length of which will depend on his sentencing in December, he must deal with perhaps the larger and more difficult task of transforming his image and earning acceptance from a public that largely scorns him. In a recent Gallup Poll, 58 percent of those surveyed said he should not be allowed to play again.
"It's all about how he apologizes and does his time and reacts," said Brandon Steiner, CEO and founder of Steiner Sports Marketing. "If he doesn't hide behind the truth, if he talks about the truth, people in this country are always up for a comeback and someone who's apologetic."
Said Mary Griswold, head of the sports and sponsorship divisions at the Edelman public relations firm: "He needs to really prove he has changed. But there will definitely be a portion of population that will not get over this, that will not forgive him. No matter what he does, this is something so near and dear to them that it's almost irreparable. There are just going to be a lot of people who don't forgive him or change their view of him."
What lies ahead for Vick â€” who pleaded guilty last week to criminal charges relating to dog fighting and faces significant prison time â€” is almost without precedent if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell allows him to play again. The list of pro athletes who went to prison during their careers and returned to competition is short. It includes:
c Heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson, who did three years for a rape conviction before returning to the ring in 1995. But Tyson, a bizarre character who had a criminal past and a history of erratic behavior, almost belongs in a separate category.
c Hockey player Bob Probert, a noted tough guy and substance abuser who served three months in 1989-90 for cocaine possession and was banned for life but won an appeal and was reinstated. Few paid attention; this was, after all, the NHL.
c NFL running back Jamal Lewis, then with the Baltimore Ravens, who came back in 2005 after serving four months in prison following a conviction for using a cell phone to facilitate a drug deal five years earlier.
Other prominent athletes, such as Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, were implicated in serious crimes. Although not convicted (Lewis pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor), they still had to restore their standing among the public. But none of these cases produced the raw, visceral emotion and, at times, the sheer revulsion generated by Vick, who showed occasional poor judgment and had his detractors even before he admitted to helping kill dogs.
Peter Roby, head of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, said a parallel case to Vick's in some ways is that of Muhammad Ali. Although the former heavyweight champion was convicted of draft evasion in 1967 and sentenced to five years in prison, he did not serve time and the U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturned the conviction.
Still, Ali produced a firestorm of negative reaction and harsh feelings. He was reviled by many and barred from his sport for more than three years during what would have been his prime.
"Ali comes to mind for me, not because he committed any heinous crimes, but I think about the public sentiment," said Roby, who also is Northeastern's athletic director. "The media and the public vilified him. And now he's one of the most beloved icons in the world. That, to me, is as close [to Vick] as it gets. [Ali] was really Public Enemy No. 1. It got racial and it got religious and it got patriotic."
Through the sheer force of his charismatic personality and performance in the ring, Ali won over some detractors and reinforced the backing of his supporters. But despite scintillating victories over Joe Frazier and George Foreman, he was not the same fighter when he returned; some of his skills had eroded. The same fate possibly awaits Vick, especially if he does not return until 2010 at age 30.
Quarterback is considered the hardest position to play in professional sports, and there is no telling what the rust of inactivity will do to Vick, a dazzling runner whose passing skills were shaky even while he was immersed in playing the position. The conventional wisdom is that a long layoff would cause irreparable harm, but not everyone agrees with that. One agent told a newspaper that Vick is an "athletic freak" who would draw interest from several other teams upon returning.
"If he uses the time he has off wisely, coming back won't be as hard as if he just sits and waits until his time is up," NFL Network commentator and former All-Pro running back Marshall Faulk said.
Although prison life is not exactly conducive to honing football skills, Vick can help himself if, at some point, "he's able to work out, watch film of himself, hire a quarterback coach and become sound," Faulk said. "He can become a capable passer. It just depends on how long he's suspended and how long he's committed to it.
"It depends on his approach. If he sits around the whole time, he'll have issues. If he's throwing, if he's working out, it's not an issue."
Faulk said Vick, even if completely isolated from a football environment, would be not that much different from a back-up quarterback who takes few snaps in practice and whose main job is to hold a clipboard during games.
"Guys are always sitting," he said "It's where your mind is. It's all about challenging yourself."
Returning to the field, however, might be easier than getting back in the public's good graces.
"I think a big part of his comeback is his [public relations] game plan, hiring the right PR team," Steiner said. "Everything he does will be magnified. He has two years to do it, and he could do a lot of interesting things. I could see him making huge donations to the ASPCA, rebuilding pet shelters, doing [public service announcements] to get people to adopt pets."
All well and good, but "whatever he ends up doing, he has to be sincere," Roby said. "He has to be heartfelt and he has to be consistent. In any part of a person's life, there's stuff you say and there's stuff you do. ... But regardless of whether he comes back to play football, what kind of life will he have? What can he do to get people to respect him? That's more important to me than whether he gets the public's support as a football player."
Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser.
"None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm".
Henry David Thoreau
Fail to prepare and you prepare to fail.
"Luck is the residue of design." - Branch Rickey