By David Teel
May 24, 2009
Three tarnished athletes who illustrate, to varying degrees, the challenges and opportunities awaiting former Pro Bowl quarterback Michael Vick as he completes his 23-month prison sentence under home confinement in Hampton.
"As we saw in the Kobe Bryant case and many times throughout history, there's always redemption," said Andy Appleby, chairman of General Sports & Entertainment, a Minnesota-based marketing firm. "No one's ever going to forget, but he still has a lot to offer."
Indeed, while memories of Vick's dogfighting crimes endure, he and his advisors are driven to repair his image and return him to professional football in 2009.
How vigorously can be summarized by one name: Judy Smith.
In short, she's a fixer — like Jodie Foster's character in "Inside Man."
In fact, Smith is a renowned crisis manager working for Washington, D.C.-based Impact Strategies.
Her influence within Team Vick is unclear — Smith did not return messages left on her cell phone. But she is involved, as she's been with numerous politicians, athletes and celebrities with legal and/or moral issues.
Impact Strategies' Web site says Smith's clients have included Bryant, Barry Bonds, Marion Jones, Monica Lewinsky, former Sen. Larry Craig, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and actor Wesley Snipes.
Many of those folks also have retained Billy Martin, a Washington lawyer. So did Vick as he faced felony conspiracy charges.
How Vick, abandoned by his endorsement partners, tens of millions in debt and due back in federal bankruptcy court next month, can afford Smith is unclear. But her presence shows that Vick's camp understands image and public relations are vital.
For example, Vick's outreach to the Humane Society of the United States — he met with the group's president, Wayne Pacelle — smacks of a sage PR rep.
"I sat with the man, but I still don't know what's in his heart," Pacelle wrote on his blog. "He told me he did terrible things to dogs. He said he grew up with dogfighting as a boy and that he never sufficiently questioned it as he grew into manhood.
"He said this experience has been a trauma and that he's changed forever. And he said he wants to show the American public that he is committed to helping combat the problem. He asked for an opportunity to help. I want to give him that opportunity.
"If he makes the most of it and demonstrates a sincere, long-term commitment to the task, then it may prove a tipping point. ... If he demonstrates a fleeting or superficial interest, then it will be his own failing, not ours."
Inevitably, Vick will speak for himself. Perhaps he will consent to a one-on-one, no-holds-barred interview.
But Smith and other handlers appear to understand that addressing the masses is best done later. Presently, Vick needs to address one: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Professional football's judge, jury and executioner, Goodell suspended Vick indefinitely in 2007. He has since maintained that he will not meet with Vick or consider reinstatement until Vick completes his sentence in late July. Goodell could extend Vick's banishment or allow him to return for training camp in August and the season's start in September.
"I'd guess that at least 25 (of the 32) teams wouldn't touch him because of the PR nightmare and bad press," said an NFL personnel executive who requested anonymity. "But some team will give him a shot. They always do. But I wouldn't."
This from another team's personnel director: "It's going to take a strong-willed owner and (general manager) that can handle the attacks you're going to take publicly. ... Guys have done worse and played sooner. Guys have killed people in car accidents. ... I think he's paid his debt to society."
Now we realize that many of you loathe Vick and resent the media, the Daily Press included, for chronicling his every step. Others forgive him, consider his punishment harsh and chastise us for hounding him.
There are nuggets of truth in each argument.
But regardless of your stance, there's no overstating the importance of these next few months for a Peninsula native who in 2004 signed the richest contract in pro football history — $130 million over 10 years with the Atlanta Falcons — and basked in endorsements with Nike, Coca-Cola, EA Sports and AirTran.
"He's got to be darn near flawless from now on," Appleby said.
This is where Bryant, Heatley and Little are instructive.
As a St. Louis Rams rookie in 1998, Little ran a red light and struck another car, killing its driver. His blood-alcohol level, 0.19 percent, was nearly twice Missouri's then-limit of 0.10.
Little pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and served a 90-day jail term and eight-game NFL suspension. He performed 1,000 hours of community service, returned to the Rams — Mothers Against Drunk Drivers picketed his first game back — and became a Pro Bowl defensive end.
In 2004, suburban St. Louis police charged Little with speeding and, as a persistent offender, felony driving while intoxicated. He faced four years in prison, but despite his admission of drinking a "couple of beers," a jury acquitted him of the DWI charge after a two-day trial.
Little, 34, remains with the Rams. He played in 14 games last season, starting five.
Lesson for Vick: If someone whose criminal negligence killed a woman can reclaim his NFL career, so can you. However, given your higher profile and more sordid history — let's not forget the herpes lawsuit and airport bong — you cannot afford another legal or ethical entanglement.
Like Little, Heatley was charged in connection with a high-speed, fatal car crash. Alcohol was not involved in the 2003 incident, and the victim was his passenger and Atlanta Thrashers teammate Dan Snyder.
Heatley, the NHL's 2002 rookie of the year, missed most of the 2003-04 season because of injuries sustained in the accident and later requested a trade. Atlanta sent him to Ottawa, where he has thrived.
Lesson for Vick: The Falcons' decision to sever ties with you is best for all concerned. The wounds you caused in Atlanta remain raw, and a change of venue is necessary.
But the poster child for image mending is Bryant, a Los Angeles Lakers guard.
During the summer of 2003, a 19-year-old female hotel worker in Eagle, Colo., accused him of rape. Bryant admitted to an adulterous encounter but said it was consensual.
Prosecutors dropped the charge in 2004 when the woman declined to testify at trial. She later filed a civil suit, which the parties settled out of court.
Bryant lost endorsements and heard abuse from fans. But last season, NBA media voted him the league's MVP, and during the summer, Bryant led the United States to a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics.
He has since returned to the ad wars with spots for, among others, Vitaminwater and Nike — did he really jump over that speeding Aston Martin?
Lesson for Vick: Performance matters. A lot.
"If Michael Vick becomes MVP and leads his team to the Super Bowl, he'll get endorsements," Appleby said. "You hate to say it, but there's probably nothing that can repair his image like four touchdown passes and two 40-yard runs. Sports fans have a short memory."
Lessons for Michael Vick Athletes can come back from image-tarnishing troubles to enjoy success. Here's how:
Keep your nose clean: Other athletes have survived multiple miscues, but Vick's high profile means he can't afford another ethical mess-up or brush with the law.
Get a fresh start: Atlanta's in the past. If Vick gets another shot in the NFL, he should use the opportunity to work on a clean slate in a new city.
Just win, baby: If Vick performs well on the field, many fans will be willing to give him a pass on his past troubles.
Where would Vick fit in? The popular Wildcat formation might be ideal for Vick's return, Page 10 in Sports.
Copyright © 2014, Newport News, Va., Daily Press