ESPN and the sports pages routinely cover the bad behaviors of athletes, but the dogfighting charges against superstar quarterback Michael Vick have struck a different chord with Americans.
Since a US attorney in Virginia indicted Mr. Vick 10 days ago for conspiring to "pit" dogs against one another, the case has triggered animal rights protests, talk show laments, and kitchen table disgust.
On Monday, the NFL ordered the the fleet-footed and hugely popular Atlanta Falcons franchise man barred from training camp while it conducts its own investigation.
The case, experts say, has forced Americans to confront the history of dogfighting, their own feelings on the nature of human primacy over animals, and even the covert appeal of blood sport.
The first US dogfighting bans were put in place in the 1830s. Today, it's a felony in all but two states – Idaho and Montana – to promote the "sport." Still, the Humane Society of the United States estimates that approximately 40,000 high-stakes dog fighters operate in the US, and perhaps as many as 100,000 amateur "street fighters" who fight for smaller stakes often simply for cachet.
According to the indictment, Vick and three compatriots, under the guise of Bad Newz Kennels, carried out a professional breeding and training operation out of his Surry County home. There, investigators say they found a variety of paraphernalia and evidence that dogs not fit to fight were killed by electrocution, hanging, shooting, and pummeling, often in front of a crowd.
"I think this case awakens us and frightens us," says Tom Regan, the noted animal rights philosopher at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "We realize that success, including financial success and being worshiped by many, is no barrier against being pulled to this kind of enjoyment of cruelty. It's much closer than we think."
Of 622 Atlantans polled by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week, 65 percent wanted Vick gone. (Meanwhile, 97 percent of people had heard about the case, according to the AJC poll.)
Judging by the broad condemnation of the alleged acts, many Americans understand that breeding and training dogs to fight is a "perversion" of nature, says Eric Sakach, who spent nearly 20 years infiltrating clandestine dog and cockfights and is now the director of Western operations of the Humane Society in Sacramento, Calif. "Whereas dogs have always been man's best friend, this is how we betray them," he says.
Much of dogfighting's recent popularity has been fueled by athletes and music stars. In 2005, NBA player Qyntel Woods and NFL player LeShon Johnson, in separate incidents, pleaded guilty to animal cruelty charges related to dogfighting.
Some hip-hop artists, including Jay-Z and DMX, have glommed onto dogfighting as an image of street credibility.
The idea that dogs can convey a sense of "power that you control" appeals to men who feel marginalized by society, says Brian Luke, author of the newly released book, "Brutal: Manhood and the Exploitation of Animals." "Why is this the kind of case where we can really totally feel all of our compassion for animals and express outrage?" asks Mr. Luke. "Part of the reason is that it's associated with the working class, and now black men, and that makes it unacceptable."
Terry Fields of Atlanta, who considers himself a fan of Vick, says that dogfighting is a bad idea. On the other hand, he says, "these kinds of dogs pull on the chain to fight."
But he questions whether the charges are as bad as allegedly being involved in killing a man, which Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis was charged with before pleading guilty to a misdemeanor, or allegedly raping a woman, a charge NBA star Kobe Bryant faced before the alleged victim refused to testify. The NFL and NBA did not take action against the players in those cases.
The charges and the punishment against Vick are unjust, Mr. Fields says. "But there's a lot of dog lovers out there."
No matter how the case against the quarterback plays out in the courts and backrooms of the NFL, the national debate on dogfighting is likely to have an impact. No longer is it acceptable, Mr. Kacach says, for rural lawmakers in particular to protect animal-fighting constituencies. Louisiana will begin enforcing a new cockfighting law in 2008. Georgia, the only state that hasn't outlawed the act of attending a fight, is likely to pass a spectator law this year.
"We're realizing that as long as we've got animals being treated in violent, horrible ways, it spills over into human activity," says David Nibert, a sociologist at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. "It's the same social fabric, all entangled."