Vick's PR nightmare in a league of its own

In the hours that followed the federal indictment of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick &

an alleged key player in a Virginia dogfighting operation &

the team's offices were flooded Wednesday with angry phone calls, an Atlanta radio station switched to an all-Vick-all-the-time format, and the national Humane Society's computer server crashed under a deluge of e-mails.

Vick, 27, and three others are accused of violating federal laws against staging dogfights, gambling and engaging in unlawful activities across state lines. According to the indictment, they ran Bad Newz Kennels out of a property the quarterback owns in Surry, Va., and executed pit bulls &

by methods such as hanging, drowning, electrocution, shooting and beating &

that did not perform well as fighters.

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, characterized the response as "unbelievable," adding: "There's no happiness we're feeling about this, but we're pleased that the public is not tolerant of this, and that there's such enormous revulsion to this kind of conduct."

The former Virginia Tech star said after authorities initially raided the property in April that he was rarely at the house and had no idea it had been used in a criminal enterprise. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The Vick case will be the most significant test yet for the NFL under Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has pledged a crackdown to make players and teams more accountable for off-field transgressions.

The league said in a statement that "all concerned should allow the legal process to determine the facts." In a separate statement, the Falcons said they "plan to do the right thing for our club as the legal process plays out."

But at least in one instance recently, the league suspended a player before his case made it through court. Tennessee Titans defensive back Adam "Pacman" Jones, suspended in April, had at least 10 run-ins with police in his first year in the league.

Vick and his alleged business partners &

Tony Taylor, 34, of Hampton, Va., Purnell Peace, 35, of Virginia Beach, and Quanis Phillips, 28, of Atlanta &

all were ordered Wednesday to appear for a bond hearing and then arraignment July 26. That's the same day the Falcons are scheduled to open training camp.

But reaction to Vick's indictment, and the graphic allegations of how the animals were treated, has been swift and severe &

from inside and outside pro football.

"This is going to be a significant blemish on the NFL no matter what," David Cornwell, a former assistant general counsel for the league, said Wednesday.

The Atlanta-based attorney added that there was nothing the league's new boss "can say or do that's going to make this go away from an image perspective. I just don't believe in degrees of bad &

when it's bad it's bad. And this is bad."

Harry Edwards, a longtime NFL consultant and sociology professor emeritus at the University of California, said, "The Atlanta Falcons and the NFL are going to be confronted with a heck of a decision to make as they enter the season. At what point does the message, image and marketability of the game come into play irrespective of any outcome of a trial?

"What happens when you get literally millions of people who say 'Hanging, shooting and electrocuting of dogs? And we're going to cheer for this guy? We're going to buy shoes from this guy?'

"It's not going to be good enough to say, 'I'm going to go out on the field and do my job as a football player and let my attorney handle it.' "

The indictment identifies Vick as a key player in an operation that dated to 2001, just before his rookie season with the Falcons. Listed are at least 30 fights that Vick or other members of the kennel arranged or participated in, including details such as the names of the dogs and the amount of money &

often thousands of dollars &

awarded to the owners of the winners of matches that were frequently fought to the death.

Peace, Phillips and Vick also allegedly executed "approximately eight" dogs that did not perform well during so-called "testing" sessions in April. Later, authorities seized from the property 60 dogs &

most of them pit bulls &

along with treadmills, a stick used to pry fighting animals apart, and a "rape stand" device used to hold down aggressive females for breeding.

It's not the kind of news the NFL wants one of its highest-profile players to make.

Vick was ranked 24th in Sports Illustrated's list of top-earning athletes in 2006, collecting $13 million in salary and $7 million in endorsements. He is sponsored by Nike, which has yet to weigh in on the situation other than releasing a statement Wednesday saying, "We are aware of the indictment. We have no further comment at this time."

Nike has a history of maintaining relationships with its athletes even in the face of controversy. It kept its ties with cyclist Lance Armstrong despite persistent doping rumors, and with Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant after his arrest for sexual assault in Colorado. In the case of Bryant, however, the shoe giant didn't use his image in advertising for two years.

While Vick's main sponsor was measured, public opinion was not. At WQXI in Atlanta, the Falcons' official sports radio station, there was an unbroken stream of phone calls since the news of the indictment.

"The only thing close to this was the John Rocker story," said program director Matt Edgar, referring to the former pitcher for the Atlanta Braves whose racist comments in December 1999 made national news. "But this is on another level. It's crazy."

Edgar said the calls were divided along "racial lines more often than they should be."

He added: "You still have the redneck base that say, 'I never liked him from the get-go.' Then you have the people who say, 'If he goes, I'll go. I'll sell my tickets.' "

A Falcons source said the team received "a ton of ugly phone calls" Wednesday, not just from season-ticket holders within Georgia, but from places such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maine.

Asked to characterize the calls, the source said: "I'll say this, people are very passionate about their pets. The feelings have been expressed very strongly."

This is not Vick's first encounter with negative publicity. He settled a lawsuit last year filed by a woman who said he knowingly gave her herpes. Also, last November he made an obscene gesture to Falcons fans as he walked off the field after a 31-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints. He later apologized. And in January, Vick was stopped by security screeners at the Miami airport after he boarded an AirTran flight carrying a water bottle that had a hidden compartment containing a dark substance that smelled like marijuana. He told screeners he used the bottle to store jewelry. Authorities later said they found no evidence of drugs and Vick was cleared of wrongdoing.

Marketing experts say the severity of these latest allegations overshadow all past problems.

"I would say there's a do-not-touch sign on Michael Vick," said Steve Rosner, co-founder of 16W Marketing. "Whether he's involved or not, at this point it's guilty by association."

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