A lot at stake for NFL and Eagles in Michael Vick's comeback

The disgraced football star did prison time for animal cruelty. Will the fans accept his contrition?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Chances are Mike Vick won't ever be able to live down the events at Bad Newz Kennels, the dogfighting ring that landed the NFL's highest-paid player in federal prison for 18 months, nearly ruining his career.

But, in fact, it's Mr. Vick's decision to remember the cruel legacy of 1915 Moonlight Road in rural Virginia that explains his return yesterday to the league, and why the Philadelphia Eagles had to compete with nearly a dozen other teams to sign the electric ball player.

Even if some of his contrition is calculated, Vick has had to convince NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, his fellow players and, now, the Eagles headcoach Andy Reid, how his unique insights into animal cruelty can be used to help urban kids understand why dogfighting is wrong.

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To be sure, some Americans likely won't forgive or forget what the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback did. He was convicted in 2007 on charges that included strangling dogs that didn't show enough promise in the ring. He spent 18 months of a 23-month sentence at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. Despite once being the highest-paid player in the league, Vick has declared bankruptcy.

"These days there's always a sliding scale of what's acceptable behavior based on the upside," says David Carter, director of the Sports Business Institute in Los Angeles. "But Vick is different. He hasn't played for quite some time, and the uniqueness of the fan backlash is something the sports industry has not seen before. There's nothing that has brought with it the kind of passionate resistance [that Vick's actions have]. A lot of fans are going to boo until their throats are sore."

To get here, Vick has relied first and foremost on the trust and goodwill of Commissioner Goodell, who sent former Baltimore Colts coach Tony Dungy to Leavenworth to talk with Vick this spring and gauge his contrition. After a two-hour interview, Dungy came away impressed.

Dungy, a devout Christian, says Vick told him that he had strayed from God after working his way to becoming the NFL's best paid player. In prison, Vick told Dungy, he realized he needed to bring his faith back. At the meeting, Vick seemed stripped of the brash arrogance he had often displayed as a player, once giving a rude hand gesture to Atlanta fans after a disappointing home loss.

"That's when I felt this is a young man who is on the right direction," Dungy told the Washington Post. "I think he has a better understanding of who he really is."

After Goodell, on Dungy's advice, agreed to allow Vick's reinstatement, the next challenge became to find a team that would take a chance on a player who hadn't stepped on a football field since 2006, and whose past could easily become a public relations nightmare.

In Philadelphia, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, who owns a rescue dog, and coach Andy Reid, who has two sons who have had trouble with the law, weighed the role that Vick could play as the Eagles strive for a championship against the possible public backlash and general fan discontent with the team's management. It also didn't hurt that sometimes prickly QB Donovan McNabb, a friend of Vick's, supported the deal.

The two-year deal, worth over $7 million, is contingent on Vick not just producing on the field as a "wide receiver, quarterback, football player," as his contract lists him, but keeping his personal life out of the news.

What's more, as part of his return, Vick is required to meet with inner city kids twice a month to talk about his personal experiences with dogfighting and why it's wrong. Indeed, Vick has already met with high schoolers and the discussions have been notably frank, detailed, and honest, those close to the negotiations say.

While People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals denounced the Eagles' decision to hire Vick, the Humane Society of the United States has taken a more conciliatory tack after Vick's admission that, "I didn't do enough to stop it," as Vick told 60 Minutes in a segment to be aired Sunday.

Indeed, the Humane Society's tacit support acknowledges how attention around Vick and the issue of dogfighting has made the illegal sport a national priority. Last month, the HSUS and federal agents conducted the largest dogfighting raid in the nation's history, a sign of the influence the Vick case has had not just on public opinion, but on law enforcement policy.

Questions still abound over Vick's age, his time away from the game, and what role he will play in Philadelphia, which already has a star quarterback. Will he be happy plying the sidelines? Has his behavior truly changed? Or is he the missing puzzle piece for Philadelphia to finally get a title?

So far, Vick's tentative steps toward redemption on the gridiron and off have been surprisingly successful, given that many commentators believed he'd never play in the NFL again. Whether expectations of his performance fit with reality will start to come into focus when Vick plays his first pre-season game with his new team later this month.

"Vick seems to be serious about wanting to get back and doing whatever it takes," says John Maxymuk, author of three books about the Eagles. "Whether it's heartfelt sincerity or just intelligence, he's doing the right thing so far."

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