Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick is facing charges of animal cruelty and sponsoring dogfighting operations across state lines, but his legal problems are the least of the concerns facing the Atlanta Falcons franchise. Though ultimately Vick is facing jail time if convicted, what happens between now and then could very well affect the organization for years to come.
The indictment puts the Falcons into an uncomfortable position. There are many people who were outraged by the grisly details of torture and abuse the dogs suffered at the hands of Vick and associates, outlined in the 18-page indictment filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. There is some expectation that the team should take a hardline against Vick. Others are pleading for Vick to get his day in court before he’s crucified by public opinion.
Formally, the latter is also the opinion of the Falcons organization, who want nothing more than Vick to stand trial in order to prove his innocence, if he can. Truthfully, the outcome of the legal action probably won’t make a difference to the team from a business point of view. If Vick is found guilty, he won’t be playing for the team anyway. And even if Vick is found not guilty, he has already poisoned the team’s season just by the virtue of being indicted. Maybe that’s unfair to Vick, but that is exactly what has transpired in just a short time.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank issued a statement that read in part, “This is an emotionally charged and complicated matter.” And further, though he didn’t say it explicitly, this is also a no-win situation for his team. Vick is their star player, the face of the franchise, and has been a huge draw for ticket sales since the day he was drafted the first overall pick in 2001. And there is a financial consideration as well. He is owed $6 million this year alone in salary. Blank must find some way to balance what Vick represents as the organization’s star against what consequences there will be if Vick simply plays as much of the season as he can.
The problem is that if Vick plays, he is going to draw the ire of protesters all season long as well as considerable attention from fans and media alike. Every single Falcons press conference, every single Michael Vick news story is going to mention the indictment and the trial, whether or not Vick is eventually found innocent or guilty. And what happens if the Falcons have a losing season? All of the sudden, that scrutiny gets exacerbated to an extreme.
The alternative may come down to a quiet agreement between Blank and Vick. Blank also said in his statement that “there are a wide range of interests and legal issues that need to be carefully considered as we move ahead, including our need to respect the due process that Michael is entitled to.” While it might sound like Blank prefers to wait out the conclusion of the legal action, it may also ultimately signal a gentleman’s agreement that Vick would take the season off, likely a paid leave of absence. This, too, is a less than ideal solution. The Falcons traded proven back up quarterback Matt Schaub to the Houston Texans. Heading into the season, they have Joey Harrington and Chris Redman to back up Vick.
Regardless of who steps up to replace him, releasing Vick may not be an option for financial reasons. Vick will count for $13.57 million against the salary cap this season, and $15.1 million in 2008. Because of his 10-year contract and $37 million signing bonus, the Falcons would save essentially nothing to cut him in either year.
And none of this takes into account the fall out that will affect the Falcons in tangential ways. It already started after an announcement by the National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell that Vick would be allowed to practice and play with the Falcons while federal investigators pursue their case against him. Activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals immediately issued a public protest, and will take their complaint in person to the league front office today. PETA spokesman Dan Shannon has called the charges against Vick “staggering” and there is talk of boycotts against the Falcons organization and/or the NFL itself if Vick is allowed to play. The Humane Society has also said it will protest in some fashion.
Also after the indictment was announced, Nike pulled a line of signature shoes bearing Vick’s name. The Air Zoom Vick V has been indefinitely shelved, though Nike’s other Vick-branded shoes will still be available at retail stores.
There will be more of these types of reactions as businesses and other athletes all scramble to get as far away from the negative stigma that Vick’s actions have brought upon himself, the Falcons and the NFL. Some people will unconditionally support Vick. Others will claim he’s being singled out because of his status as a high profile athlete. But all of these things are really besides the point. As NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy succinctly put it, “We are disappointed that Michael Vick has put himself in a position where a federal grand jury has returned an indictment against him.”
That’s right, guilty or not, the price has already been paid.