Fair game?

The Baltimore Sun

Welcome to the ultimate test of the Roger Goodell Doctrine.

Superstar NFL quarterback Michael Vick has been indicted on a number of federal counts relating to his alleged involvement in the grotesque "sport" of dogfighting, the details of which are so sickening that it's almost painful to make the standard argument that he should be considered innocent until proved guilty.

Of course, he should, because that's the American way, but commissioner Roger Goodell made it clear recently that he is not obligated to apply a constitutional standard when handling cases of player misconduct that he deems detrimental to the sport. He suspended troubled Tennessee Titans star Adam "Pacman" Jones for a season, even though Jones had not been convicted of a crime. He also handed eight-game suspensions to the Cincinnati Bengals' Chris Henry and former Chicago Bear Tank Johnson without particular regard for due process.

That's why I find it curious Goodell reportedly has decided to take a let-the-process-play-out approach with Vick. If ever there was a time when his new get-tough conduct policy should be put in play for the good of the league, this would appear to be it. He needs to make sure that Vick does not put on his Atlanta Falcons uniform until this latest example of the NFL gone wild has been adjudicated.

I'm sure there are a lot of people who wish he would make sure Vick never puts on an NFL uniform again, but let's not get carried away. If we learned anything from the Duke lacrosse case, it is that an accusation - no matter how convincing in the charging documents - is still only an accusation. The charges could turn out to be inflated. The grisly details could turn out to be exaggerated.

Even so, there are enough facts not in dispute to justify a suspension while the legal process plays out.

No one is denying that Vick owned the property that was the site of an illegal dog-training and dogfighting operation for six years. And no one can deny that putting two dogs in a cage for the purpose of watching them tear each other to shreds is so cruel and reprehensible that the mere suggestion of a connection to the NFL is extremely damaging to the league's image.

Goodell risked challenges in court and from the players union when he banned Jones before authorities had determined the extent of the Titan's involvement in a Las Vegas strip club shooting. If he does the same to one of the biggest names in professional sports, he could end up looking like the second coming of famed baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

(Ten-second history lesson: Landis banned the alleged perpetrators of the infamous "Black Sox" conspiracy to fix the 1919 World Series - even though all had just been acquitted in a court of law - claiming it was necessary to preserve the integrity of the game.)

Federal investigators really didn't leave Goodell any other palatable choice. The public outcry was relatively muted during the early weeks of the investigation, when Vick said that he had little knowledge of what was happening on his property and placed the blame on a renegade relative. But the charging documents were so graphic in detailing what Vick and his three co-defendants allegedly did to under-performing dogs that Vick has little hope of reclaiming his good name - such as it was before this scandal surfaced.

Vick wasn't exactly a choirboy to begin with, but his previous brushes with impropriety pale by comparison. He was sued by a former girlfriend who claimed he infected her with herpes. (The case was settled out of court.) He apologized for making an obscene gesture toward the stands after a Falcons loss in November. He was detained at Miami International Airport in January because security personnel found a secret compartment in his water bottle that was suspected of containing marijuana residue. (Subsequent testing detected no illegal substance.)

The Falcons stood behind him each time. It might be different now, though Goodell reportedly has decided in consultation with team officials to withhold judgment, at least for the moment.

Goodell could change his mind as more facts surface over the next few weeks, or the team could choose to invoke the character clause in the standard player contract and release Vick. That's what the Bears did with Johnson after his latest brush with the law, but it would be far more painful for the Falcons because of Vick's huge salary cap number and his status as one of the NFL's premier quarterbacks.

The way things stand, Vick will be allowed to report to camp after his arraignment next Thursday, presumably to run a gantlet of animal rights protesters who probably also would try to exploit the fact that Falcons owner Arthur Blank is the co-founder of Home Depot, one of the world's largest home improvement chains.

Perhaps the best possible outcome would be for Vick to request a voluntary leave, during which he could focus on defending himself in court and developing a long-term strategy to salvage his reputation.

It won't be easy on either front. The feds don't usually lose cases such as this, which means Vick could be headed to prison.

Goodell and the Falcons might want to distance themselves from him well before that happens.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Saturdays and Sundays.

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