Guilty or innocent, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback, massively marketed as the new breed of multitalented National Football League star, has become the face of an activity so vile that a long prison term is not punishment enough for those at the rotten core of dogfighting.
There should be a level of Hell in Dante's Inferno reserved for humans who aid and abet the unspeakable horrors that attend this barbaric "sport." It should be very close to the circle reserved for death-camp commandants and terrorists who blow themselves up in crowded public places.
And don't tell me, "Lighten up, it's only a dog . . . " I'm more dog-tolerant than dog-loving, but this story and its ramifications transcend outrage even for somebody who has never wished the companionship of man's best friend.
So, the first thing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell should do is guarantee Michael Vick's safety. This fresh-faced voice of a long-overdue morality should assign 24-hour security to a man about to surpass Barry Bonds, O.J. Simpson and Pete Rose in the Hall of Infamy's jock wing. He should protect Vick from the reach of potential vigilante justice. It's going to take a few more news cycles for the full impact of this story to hit home. But it will hit harder than anything since O.J. was leading the Freeway Grand Prix in his white Bronco.
You think I'm kidding? What this man is accused of doing - one count in the bill of indictment accuses Vick of supervising the multigrisly killings of eight dogs - is a grenade tossed at more than 70 million American dog owners.
Imagine if the Falcons had a game scheduled this season in Cleveland, against the Browns. With the sound system blaring "Who Let the Dogs Out." With all those hirsute crazies in their dog masks . . . It will be bad enough in stadiums where Rover is not the symbol of a team's tenacity and ferocity.
And that's why Michael Vick must never play again in an NFL uniform - until the indictment has run its legal course and he is acquitted by a jury. And try to imagine the jury-selection process if the quarterback's legal team fails to reach a satisfactory plea bargain: "Do you now own, or have you ever owned one or more dogs?"
Hey, there were people who supported the Vietnam war who wanted to impeach Lyndon Johnson when he was photographed holding up his beagle by the ears. I think a few million John Madden video games featuring Michael Vick just became the equivalent of your old eight-track tapes.
There is already a Greek chorus of bleeding hearts calling for Vick to be allowed to continue overthrowing receivers and running around like a very fast rat in a maze until he has his day in court.
That due process-rooted sentiment confronts the unofficial national religion with a public-relations disaster of unprecedented scope.
Goodell has been suspending the NFL's growing list of social misfits at a heartening rate. Vick's alleged involvement in caninecide should draw a suspension - for involvement in illegal gambling? - that carries beyond the legal resolution of the case. When a law-enforcement officer or teacher is accused of a crime, aren't they put on "administrative leave" pending an in-house investigation? Let the NFL investigation begin - but proceed slowly.
One of Franz Kafka's most chilling short stories is called "In the Penal Colony." It involves the use of an instrument of torture whereby the sentence imposed on a prisoner is carved into his body in an ornate script.
In the case of anybody guilty of involvement in the killing of dogs used for this illegal blood sport, a simple brand would suffice:
"Dog Killer." And make the letters big . . . *
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