Rich Hofmann | Don't dog him unless he's found guilty

Posted: July 18, 2007

WHAT DO YOU say we make a deal? If Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick is convicted or pleads guilty to the charges contained in a federal indictment - charges of sponsoring a dogfighting operation so heinous that losing dogs who didn't die in the ring were sometimes shot, drowned, hanged or electrocuted - then his National Football League career should be over.

Until that time, though, why don't we let the prosecutor do his work?

And that includes Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner.

In only a few months on the job, Goodell has developed a reputation as a hanging judge. Pacman Jones, Chris Henry, Tank Johnson - all of them have been subject to the commissioner's discipline.

There is a new NFL player-conduct policy in place and Goodell has implemented it with a terrible swift sword. Jones, for instance, has been convicted of nothing - yet multiple arrests and serial knuckleheadedness were enough for Goodell to act, with the NFL Players Association mostly applauding from the front row.

But this is where Goodell needs to stop. This is where he needs to back off and let the justice system do its business. If even a smidgen of what Vick is charged with is true, no one would want him within a mile of their football team.

And, frankly, with these kinds of charges hanging over him, it is hard to imagine how both he and the Falcons will be able to function normally in the coming months.

But just as he deserves to be banned from the NFL if the charges are true, he deserves the opportunity to work while proclaiming his innocence. If the Falcons can convince Vick to take a voluntary leave of absence - with pay, natch - that really might be the best thing for everyone involved.

But if he wants to work, he should work.

It should not even be a question.

This is what an NFL spokesman said last night:

"We are disappointed that Michael Vick has put himself in a position where a federal grand jury has returned an indictment against him. We will continue to closely monitor developments in this case, and to cooperate with law enforcement authorities. The activities alleged are cruel, degrading and illegal. Michael Vick's guilt has not yet been proven, and we believe that all concerned should allow the legal process to determine the facts. The matter will be reviewed under the League's Personal Conduct Policy.''

On first reading, that sounds as if Goodell will wait and see. There are people who will claim this as some kind of grand double standard - leniency for a high-profile player but the hammer for someone like Pacman - but that really isn't the case.

All of the other cases, Pacman's and the rest, involved multiple brushes with the law. Vick is in a different category, it would seem. Yes, he had that business with the water bottle and the airport security people, but it really amounted to a bunch of nothing, just a couple of headlines.

This is really Vick's first involvement with the new policy. Quoting from the paragraph bearing the heading "Persons Charged With Criminal Activity'':

"Any Covered Person arrested for or charged with conduct prohibited by this policy will be required to undergo a consultation and additional counseling as directed. Failure to comply with the consultation and counseling [including being arrested for or charged with additional criminal activity during the evaluation and counseling period] shall itself be conduct detrimental to the National Football League and shall be punishable by fine or suspension at the discretion of the Commissioner.''

What that seems to suggest is that Vick will be required to meet with Goodell for a little conversation. But that is the only requirement, provided Vick is not charged with any other crimes. They meet, they consult, they either do or don't decide on a future counseling schedule, and that's it. Then the courts do their thing.

That the timing is atrocious, just a couple of weeks before the opening of NFL training camps, is obvious enough. But them's the breaks.

For Goodell, there is no danger in acting too slowly here. If people want to be disgusted by Vick and the allegations, it is their right. If people want to condemn the commissioner for allowing this kind of accused miscreant to play in his league, so be it.

But what is the alternative, and how would you square it with anybody's sense of justice?

After all, even a hanging judge waits for a conviction before ordering the rope.

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Send e-mail to hofmanr@phillynews.com.  For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/hofmann.

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