What May Have Made a Michael Vick Advocate out of the NFL's Notoriously Unforgiving Commissioner
I heard something on a sports radio station the other day about the Philadelphia Eagles' signing of Michael Vick that caught my attention. A voice on the radio speculated, "...without the cover given by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the Eagles would have never felt they could get away with signing Michael Vick."
It is an interesting thought that largely hasn't been touched in the print media.
I know many editorialists would question that radio talking head's statement, instead insisting Goodell has been harsh on Vick by giving him the six-week evaluation/suspension period following the jail time.
I think those writers ignore that reinstating Vick is a public relations nightmare for the NFL, when perhaps as much as 35 percent of their fan base own or love dogs and loathe the man. The Commish cannot just let a guy who tortured puppies* to death back in without any league sponsored punishment without exposing the league to a huge fan backlash.
(*Some may question the choice of the word "puppies" as loaded, but I use it for two reasons. First to underscore the view of dog owners who have personalized the issue, and, second, because one should recall the dogs that Vick was found to have played a role in drowning, hanging, and otherwise torturing to death were young dogs who failed to show the necessary aggressiveness to compete in dog fights.
Young, unaggressive dogs certainly sound like puppies, and if you put yourself in a dog lover’s shoes, one can certainly understand their identification of those unlucky dogs with their family pooch.)
I think it is accurate to say Goodell provided cover for an NFL team to hire Vick. Only a few weeks ago ESPN theorized NFL owners might feel a need to stay away from Vick in this "Great Recession." Team owners worried that fan boycotts or loss of corporate sponsorships from a Vick signing might dramatically impact a team's bottom line.
Over the last two years, Goodell clearly appeared not to be a Vick fan. I think, in general, it would be an understatement to say Michael Vick was not Goodell's type of player. Goodell has taken a general hard line stance on NFL thuggery.
When you consider all of the other behavioral issues that cropped up with Vick before he went to jail—marijuana use, lying about marijuana use, gambling, dog fighting —and add perhaps the biggest offense—lying to Goodell's face about the level of his involvement with the dog fighting—I think most would agree Goodell thought little of Vick.
Any yet Goodell opened the door to Vick being signed almost as soon as Vick walked out of jail. Goodell assigned the NFL’s most beloved outwardly Christian man since Tom Landry, Tony Dungy, to "mentor" Vick.
Dungy's positive words about Vick would be pointed to as a key factor by the Eagles in their decision to sign him. The Eagles also said that Goodell's advocacy for Vick played a big role in their willingness to pursue Vick.
Goodell went a step further after the signing, arguing that the Vick signing by the Eagles is a commendable charitable action instead of a condemnable waiving of morality as pet owners might see it.
Goodell also went on record in case Vick blows this chance with the Eagles, deflecting blame from the Eagles management to Vick (and Goodell himself to a lesser degree).
"I have said several times in recent weeks that I want Michael to be one of the NFL's success stories as an individual and as a football player," Goodell said.
"I believe he can accomplish both goals with the Eagles organization which has done an outstanding job in the community and on the field these last 15 years under the direction of owner Jeffrey Lurie. I know the Eagles will provide strong support but, ultimately, Michael's success is up to him and the decisions he makes."
But to focus on the Eagles is to ignore the larger questions. Why would Goodell risk the quick signing of a player who is potentially box office poison for the whole league? Why not suspend Vick for a year and let some other league take the PR hit for employing him?
That way, if Vick's skills have declined to a point where he is no longer NFL-caliber, there is no loss to the NFL. If his skills are still there, the NFL can acquire him after the brunt of pet owner rage has been expended on some other league.
On the surface, that would seem the smart move business-wise, if simple talent acquisition was the motivation of Goodell and the NFL.
A component that could be added to make this equation balance is the designs of the United Football League on Michael Vick. I think Goodell and the NFL decided they could not afford Michael Vick as the face of the UFL in 2009.
As the UFL's first season will not start until later this year, the UFL does not have an established fan base. For the UFL, an initial season with Michael Vick would open the door to "curiosity viewership" from the larger part of the NFL base that doesn't internalize Vick's dog abuse history into personal animosity.
Gaining even a fraction of that audience for even the first two weeks of the UFL's initial brief eight-week "sampler" season could have generated enough added fan interest to potentially generate a more substantial TV deal for future seasons.
UFL Commissioner Michael Huyghue has been talking about signing Michael Vick since last year. He told Peter King last August that there was a "98 percent" chance that Vick would be signed by a UFL team in 2009.
King argued that as Vick was "due to get out of federal prison in July 2009, and in all likelihood he'll be suspended for the 2009 season by the NFL, which would also make him ineligible for the Canadian Football League", he'd have few options beyond the UFL.
In December, Huyghue was caught further fawning over the possibilities of a Vick signing by the New York Daily News. "I do think he would be the type of player that would be a great player for this league," Huyghue told the Daily News, echoing remarks he made to Sports Illustrated in August.
"I still continue to believe that we might prove to be the best type of buffer for a player like Michael Vick before he returns to the NFL. Obviously there are some things that would have to happen. No one has a crystal ball. Presumably he would still be suspended."
Only a couple weeks ago, ESPN discussed the Vick to UFL angle with former New Orleans Saints head coach Jim Haslett, the head coach of the UFL Orlando franchise who owned Vick's rights.
"As a league, we'll let due process take its course, but, yes, I'd love to have him and I think he would benefit from playing with us and in our league," Haslett said. "It would be a great way for him to knock off the rust and get in true football playing condition. Obviously, we know his abilities and we'd certainly tailor to his strengths."
ESPN argued that Haslett's, and his offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's, familiarity with Vick's skills from their time in the NFC South would help them utilize Vick effectively. Haslett also volunteered that Vick's supporting cast would feature a strong offensive line.
"Well, we're playing with NFL guys. I like our offensive line a lot. We've got some darned good coaches on this staff and, as I mentioned, our familiarity with Michael will give him a pretty good opportunity to showcase himself."
ESPN also reported "several sources say the league is willing to pay Vick considerably more than any other player—around $1 million—because he would be a marquee attraction for the team, the UFL and its broadcasting partner, Versus."
A later ESPN report suggested the UFL might offer as much as $1.6M for Vick's services this year while also reporting that Vick owed "$1 million in fees from his bankruptcy case and another $3.7 million in legal fees".
Most articles prior to the Eagles signing suggested a lower NFL pay scale for Vick. It seems Goodell's efforts were able to generate a two or three-team bidding war for Vick that yielded $1.5M this year (effectively matching the UFL) with an option year of $5.1M that bettered anything the UFL could offer (as a second year has not been planned and may not materialize with that league).
If Vick is allowed to play out his option, the contract could get Vick out of his legal debts within two years.
If Goodell had only reinstated Vick and he (and Dungy) had not advocated the signing of Vick, it might be questionable if there would have been enough teams comfortable enough to pursue Vick to drive the price up above the UFL's likely offer.
If Goodell had simply said Vick would need to serve a full year suspension as punishment for his actions, he could have satisfied many dog-loving NFL fans who would assume three years way from the NFL would be a death penalty for Vick's career and also provided those fans a very clear view that the NFL does not knowingly finance criminal lifestyles.
Denying him an NFL paycheck for a year when the legal system would have allowed him to play would have sent a clear message. That Goodell allowed Vick to sign with an NFL team and immediately start drawing another NFL paycheck seems very much incongruous with the Roger Goodell we have seen ruling the NFL with an iron fist over the past few years.
It seems like, barring the token few games in which Vick will not be able to play, the man was effectively was not punished by the NFL. This incongruity seems a lot less puzzling when you consider the name recognition (or lack thereof) the UFL will now offer potential fans in its initial season.
Tobi Writes is not a dog owner or a dog lover.