Goodell Can't Please Everyone in Vick Case
The emotions remain raw in the Michael Vick case. Just read the comments posted here and you know that feelings are as strong as ever on all sides of the questions of whether the quarterback was treated fairly by the legal system and whether he should be allowed to return to the NFL after missing two seasons while serving a federal sentence for his role in a dogfighting operation in Virginia.
So Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, faces a no-win situation of sorts as he decides Vick's football future after an approximately three-hour meeting between the two men Wednesday.
Goodell won't make everyone happy, no matter what he does. There are those who contend, adamantly, that Vick paid his debt to society by serving his nearly two-year federal sentence, first in prison in Leavenworth, Kan., and then in home confinement in Hampton, Va. He is in bankruptcy and now deserves a chance, those people contend, to find out if, at 29, there's enough left in his legs and his left arm to reclaim a spot as one of the sport's most dynamic players.
And there are those who maintain, every bit as adamantly, that what Vick did was vile and sadistic and with those actions he forfeited his right to play a game that turns its biggest stars into mega-wealthy cultural symbols.
That's the tightrope that Goodell must walk and, remember, he's not a courtroom judge. He's not an ethicist. He is, at the core, a businessman, the chief executive officer of an $8 billion-a-year industry that relies heavily on its public image and entrusts Goodell to keep lining the pockets of owners and players alike.
It was, essentially, a business decision a few years ago when Goodell, with input from groups of players and late NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw, toughened the personal conduct policy, giving the commissioner total authority when it comes to disciplining players for off-field misdeeds. That policy empowers Goodell to banish a player from the NFL for life, if he chooses, and it decrees that any punishment imposed by the commissioner can be appealed only to the commissioner or a person designated by him.
Upshaw not only signed off on that policy; he helped write it. Upshaw said at the time that he didn't want a few misbehaving players to create an image for an entire group of players, for an entire league, that would hurt the NFL in its dealings with sponsors and other business partners. More money for the league and its teams meant more money for players.
Now the biggest case of all is before Goodell and it's decision time, with the season approaching, with the opening of training camps upon us and Vick still on the indefinite suspension from the NFL that Goodell imposed in 2007. People familiar with the meeting between Goodell and Vick said Thursday that it went about as well as could have been expected for Vick. It lasted three to 3-1/2 hours, those people say, and those in the Vick camp apparently emerged hopeful that Goodell will reinstate Vick with no further punishment.
But Goodell might be searching for a middle ground between keeping Vick out of the sport and letting him back into it with no further sanctions. Several people familiar with the case said Thursday night that Goodell was giving serious consideration to a partial reinstatement. Vick apparently would be allowed to sign with a team, if there's a team willing to sign him, and participate in training camp. But Goodell possibly could impose an additional suspension, perhaps of four to six games, to open the regular season. The suspension would be without pay, and almost certainly would be accompanied by a warning that any further legal trouble would result in severe additional punishment, perhaps even a lifetime suspension.
Goodell has crafted a reputation for being the no-nonsense commissioner, and such a suspension perhaps would placate those in the public who want to see Vick punished further, while still giving him a chance to try to reclaim his career.
"One thing that no one wants," one person within the league said, "is for the regular season to open with Michael Vick as the number one story and all the attention on him."
A suspension of Vick, the person pointed out, might serve to reduce the intensity of the scrutiny at least temporarily.
ESPN reported Thursday that a conditional reinstatement would be announced next week and the suspension would be four games. But NFL spokesman Greg Aiello denied that report, saying no decision had been made.
People familiar with the deliberations stressed that while the partial reinstatement with a possible suspension seemed to be the direction in which Goodell was leaning, nothing was official and, indeed, nothing was firmly decided. It's up to one person and one person only, they said, and Goodell still could change his mind at any point until an announcement is made, and go another direction.
The players' union is not taking a formal position on the reinstatement issue. Its new executive director, DeMaurice Smith, met with Vick at an undisclosed location Tuesday and previously has expressed support for Vick on a personal level. But the union has not gone beyond that.
Is there even a team out there that would sign Vick if he's reinstated? That's still not clear. One NFL team after another has denied having interest in Vick. But, of course, there's nothing to be gained from expressing interest now, before he's reinstated. There's no sense in taking the public relations hit that surely would accompany being linked to him, then not actually get him. The guess here is that most teams would steer clear if Vick is reinstated, but at least a few would give serious consideration to signing him.
He never was an efficient passer even in his heyday. There was considerable debate even at the height of his on-field powers about whether his former team, the Atlanta Falcons, ever could win a Super Bowl with him playing the style that he played. But there's almost no question that Vick could be a useful player in a "Wildcat" offensive system that became increasingly popular around the league last season. Who knows if any team actually would go ahead and sign Vick, but it's difficult to imagine that a handful wouldn't toy with the notion.
The fledgling United Football League is there for Vick as a fallback option, but clearly he and his representatives don't want to have to resort to that.
Over time, the public forgives many people that it once regarded as villainous, if they are committed to staying out of future trouble and are sorry for what they've done. It remains to be seen if that's the case with Vick and, if it is the case, if he can convey that effectively to the public.
But Roger Goodell doesn't have the luxury of seeing how things play out over time.
For the NFL commissioner, decision time is now.
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