There will come a day - perhaps a year from now, maybe more, maybe less - when Michael Vick will have paid his court-ordered debt to society. Under the tenets of our justice system, he'll be a free man, and history suggests he'll still be young enough to return to the NFL and be a productive player.
But will the NFL want him back? And will our cultural Zeitgeist ever accept him back?
The cynic in you wants to say, "Don't worry, Ookie. We've forgiven a lot worse." An even bigger part, though, has got to realize that the biggest lesson learned over the past several weeks has little to do with the letter of the law.
If you're looking for some dinner-table teaching points for the kids, they're tough to find. After all, you'd hope that we already understand how to treat animals. You already knew that professional athletes should be careful when it comes to gambling, that they should choose their friends wisely and that when it comes to crime, the federal government's bite is just as tough as its bark.
So it's safe to say that the only thing we really learned is this: Do not mess with animal people. Their passion, their compassion and their conviction has never wavered over the past several months, and whether Vick stands a chance of ever returning to football might hinge on whether this rabid sect ever chooses to grant him a hint of leniency.
If we were just talking about football fans here, there'd be little discussion. Time and time again, American sports fans have proven themselves to be more than capable of forgiveness. This is a sizable slice of society that ties its flexible morals to athletic achievement, always shaping its verdicts and judgments to favor the home team, the fan favorite or the competitive advantage.
We've been known to forgive athletes who use drugs, cheat on their wives, make women do things they don't want to, evade taxes, drive drunk and even commit violent crimes. Too many sports fans care about three hours out of the day, willing to overlook whatever an athlete chooses to do the other 21.
But we're talking about animal lovers now, and if Vick was paying attention the past several weeks, he should've learned that simply accepting a plea bargain and disappearing to serve his time is hardly enough penance.
Exact details won't be known until Monday's court hearing, but you can bet Vick will be given plenty of time and solitude by a federal judge to think about his wrongs. That will just be a stiff jab to his personal freedoms, though, setting up NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's knee-buckling blow to Vick's professional future.
Goodell feels lied to and misled, and, in the process, has watched his league suffer embarrassment. He'll rightly come down hard on Vick, whose transgressions rippled well beyond the ESPN set, delivering a nasty stain to a much wider audience.
With all of his newfound free time, Vick would be wise to consider a proactive response. It's not enough to sign a plea agreement, admit to making mistakes and then hide for a year or two. Not if he wants to ever wear an NFL jersey again.
For animal lovers, for football fans and the NFL's front office, Vick's to-do list is the same. Reparations are in order. Responsibility is necessary and contrition a requisite.
Vick's crimes against our senses - our sensibilities - won't soon fade, but they can be countered. Simple admission of guilt is too hollow. A courtroom concession might appease prosecutors, but they aren't the ones who can give Vick back his livelihood.
When news hit yesterday that Vick had opted for a plea deal rather than a courtroom battle, you couldn't help but consider that this might have been the first step toward a comeback, as ridiculous as that might sound. It was a preemptive strike of sorts to salvage the rotten remnants of his battered reputation.
Had this case gone to trial - even if Vick somehow was eventually found not guilty - the heinous evidence, damning testimony and gory details surrounding the charges could have finished him forever.
(As it is, Vick's plea will include an admission of guilt, and the exact details to which he agrees on Monday could still prove crippling to his career.)If there's to be another ascension for the so-called Michael Vick Experience, the fallen quarterback will need to somehow convince us that he, too, is horrified by his own actions, that he wants to use his position, his money and his celebrity to do good and to make amends.
It'll be a campaign that won't have corporate support, that won't be stamped with a swoosh or promoted by an NFL team. But to return to football - to return to a happy life - Vick needs to sincerely come to terms with his wrongdoings. For all that he's taken and destroyed, he must give back tenfold.
At first glance, the initial news photographs seemed to be such a metaphor. There was the large white Virginia home surrounded by five smaller buildings, all dark and hidden.
In truth, Vick is no innocent mistakenly caught in the clutches of darker influences. His house of cards is dark and dirty to the core, and now that it has collapsed, nothing but time and effort can aid in the reconstruction.
We'll learn soon just how much time he'll have, but it's up to Vick to decide what kind of effort he's willing to put forth.