By agreeing to plead guilty for his role in an illegal dogfighting outfit, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick took the first step toward putting 1915 Moonlight Road – the home of Bad Newz Kennels – behind him.
But getting back to the gridiron will be an uphill battle, even for a superstar who is one of the National Football League's top draws, analysts say. Although other NFL players have returned to the game after brushes with the law, Mr. Vick's involvement in dogfighting and allegations that he drowned underperforming dogs have repelled many Americans.
"The situation with Vick is about gambling, it's about cruelty, and it's coming at a time when there's a lot of focus on athletes' behavior," says David Carter, director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. "I don't see how he's able to [come back] with all those things in mind."
A recent NBC poll found that 34 percent of respondents had a very negative perception of Vick, while only 1 percent had a very positive perception.
Vick's football career bloomed but never quite blossomed after he was picked first by Atlanta in the 2001 draft. His scrambling ability gave opposing defenses fits. Last year, he became the first NFL quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. Although the Falcons have had up-and-down seasons under his leadership, Vick became a serious NFL fan favorite. Only wide receiver Randy Moss sold more jerseys.
But the same year he joined the NFL, Vick opened Bad Newz, indictments say. Allegations say that, on at least three occasions, Vick traveled between Atlanta, South Carolina, and Virginia to fight the dogs for money, with some stakes rising to over $10,000 per fight.
A new federal law that makes it a felony to take fighting dogs across state lines carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. Vick's guilty plea most likely would reduce his jail time. Two of his codefendants in their plea agreements received sentences of 12 to 18 months. Theoretically, that length of sentence would allow Vick to return to the NFL for the 2009 season.
But Vick's admission of guilt also adds pressure to already stressed relationships with Falcons owner Arthur Blank, NFL commissioner and über-disciplinarian Roger Goodell, and football fans – all of whom have previously heard Vick plead his innocence.
"Michael Vick is going to have to make a significant act of contrition and embrace a new way of life, and show that he's worthy of redemption to both the NFL and the fans," says Rich Hanley, a pop-culture expert at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.
To be sure, several other NFL players have come back from felony cases, to various levels of success. In return for testimony against the prime suspects, authorities allowed Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge for obstruction of justice in a trial resulting from a double-slaying at an Atlanta Super Bowl party in January 2000. Mr. Lewis missed the Pro Bowl that year, but returned to not just rebuild his name, but bolster his profile and play in subsequent seasons.
Players like Bam Morris, Art Schlicter, Leonard Little, and Tamarick Vanover have all returned to play after facing serious criminal charges. Mr. Vanover got a second chance with the Chargers in 2002 even after admitting to undercover FBI agents that he set up a $40,000 drug deal.
"My cynical self says that you can do just about anything in the NFL as long as you perform on the field," says Stephen Mosher, a sports management expert at Ithaca College in New York.
In allowing such second chances, sports experts say, both the league and the fans implicitly acknowledge that players are sometimes recruited from the fringes of society and often from poor, rural areas in the South where activities such as dogfighting, while not legal, may be somewhat acceptable.
"You're not [always] going to get choirboys playing this game, it's that simple," says Mr. Mosher. "At the same time, Mike Vick touched the third rail: You don't mess with people's pets."
The NFL is conducting its own investigation. "We totally condemn the conduct outlined in the charges, which is inconsistent with what Michael Vick previously told both our office and the Falcons,"the league said in a statement. The Vick case is the biggest test yet of Commissioner Goodell's push to clean up the league.
The pigskin wunderkind from Newport News, Va., may have to go beyond contrition to win back his lost public – not to mention as much as $100 million in lost compensation and endorsements.
"I don't know of anything quite like this in sports history, so it's hard to say how the public will eventually react," says Mr. Hanley. "Coming back [for Vick] will be a process, not an event."
It's dubious that Vick will return to the Atlanta Falcons. Any general manager who considers Vick in the future will have to weigh his explosive abilities against a potential PR nightmare. And what city is looking for a quarterback? Jacksonville and Tampa might need someone in 2009, but could they find a role for a left-handed tosser with limited playoff experience, even if he came as a bargain?
"Mike Vick doesn't quite fit into that thuggish perception that we have of NFL players," says Alan Caruba, a public relations consultant in South Orange, N.J. "But will this episode sober him sufficiently to understand who he is and his place in this world? That's anybody's guess."