Star Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was suspended indefinitely without pay by the National Football League yesterday for "cruel and reprehensible" conduct after he admitted bankrolling wagers on dogfights and involvement in the hanging and drowning of six to eight pit bulls.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell acted swiftly after the plea deal was filed yesterday in federal court.
"Most of the 'Bad Newz Kennels' operation and gambling monies were provided by Vick," said a government summary of the facts agreed to by Vick and his lawyers. Vick is to enter his plea in person Monday in Richmond, Va., and be sentenced at a later date.
Goodell's action accelerates the fall of a superstar who for six seasons was one of the league's most exciting and marketable players. The first overall pick in the 2001 draft from Virginia Tech, Vick held lucrative endorsement deals, and his No. 7 jersey was worn by fans in Atlanta and in stadiums around the country.
Vick, still in his prime at age 27 with his quickness and strong arm, rushed for 1,039 yards last year, a record for a quarterback.
Vick is suspected of funding the venture at a compound in Surry County, Va., but newly released court documents say that he "did not gamble by placing side bets on any of the fights. Vick did not receive any of the proceeds of the purses that were won by Bad Newz Kennels."
In a letter to Vick, Goodell said the plea agreement nevertheless demonstrated "significant involvement" in illegal gambling. "Even if you personally did not place bets, as you contend, your actions in funding the betting and your association with illegal gambling both violate the terms of your NFL Player Contract and expose you to corrupting influences in derogation of one of the most fundamental responsibilities of an NFL player," the commissioner said.
U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson, who will hear Vick's plea on Monday, isn't bound by the government's recommendation that Vick receive a year to 18 months in prison. The conspiracy charge carries a sentence of up to five years.
Indefinite suspensions are rare in the NFL. The commissioner said he will review Vick's status at the conclusion of the legal proceedings and will consider the charges and "the extent to which you are truthful and cooperative with law enforcement and league staff."
Goodell said the Falcons are free "to assert any claims or remedies available to them." The club could seek to recover $22 million of Vick's signing bonus from the 10-year, $130 million contract he signed in 2004, the Associated Press said.
Earlier, the league barred Vick from training camp, condemned his conduct and said he had not been candid with NFL officials early in the case.
Prosecutors released a 10-page summary yesterday describing how Vick, a native of the Tidewater area of Virginia, and others started the operation more than five years ago and constructed a fence to shield the rear of the compound from public view. The Surry County property, for which Vick paid $34,000, was transformed into a "staging area," it said.
The documents said participants in the fights, often held on the second floor of a shed, came from Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and New Jersey. It did not identify any participants beyond Vick and the other defendants.
The records detail the way Vick and other men began buying dogs and puppies -- which had such names as Too Short, Big Boy, Magic, Tiny and Jane -- and training them to fight.
Dogs were put through "fighting sessions" to determine which were toughest, and the summary said Vick and two others agreed in April "to the killing of approximately 6-8 dogs that did not perform well in 'testing' sessions ... and all of those dogs were killed by various methods, including hanging and drowning."
Three former co-defendants had made deals with the government before Vick did. He also faces the possibility of state charges in Virginia.
A Baltimore man thinks his four dogs might be among dozens of animals seized from Vick's property this spring and placed in animal shelters.
Robert Beno said in an interview yesterday that his son, Robert Jr., "told me that somebody climbed into a back window and ripped off puppies he had."
The elder Beno said his son has been calling officials in Richmond to inquire about seized dogs.
The son said law enforcement officials had told him that the puppies might have been stolen last year by a dogfighter or someone intending to sell them to a dogfighter, according to a report on the Richmond Times-Dispatch's Web site. The newspaper said 52 dogs removed from Vick's property were being held in shelters. It could not be confirmed whether any of them are Beno's.
Vick has become the target of public protests by animal rights activists and others, some of whom said they hope the case will bring attention to dogfighting elsewhere.
Baltimore animal control officials said they have noted an increase in dogfighting in recent years.
"We hope the punishment will fit the crime, especially given the heinous nature of the crimes based on [yesterday's] documents," Lisa Peterson of the American Kennel Club said yesterday.