Marcus Hayes: Eagles quarterback Michael Vick thrives, but can't totally erase past

Michael Vick's reputation has recovered after his prison term.
Michael Vick's reputation has recovered after his prison term. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: September 07, 2012

THE QUESTION, really, is not who Michael Vick is today; but, rather, what Michael Vick is today.

Almost 5 years removed from his conviction for running a dogfighting ring and 3 years removed from his 19-month prison stretch, Vick enters his second season as the acknowledged starting quarterback in the fifth-largest media market. He clearly is the biggest name in Philadelphia, a football city before all else.

But is he liked? Adored? Endured? Marketable?

A rehabilitated criminal . . . or a charismatic charlatan?

It depends on who you ask.

Or what you want to believe.

No real statistics support the contention that America has forgiven Vick. In fact, the latest research from the Q Score Company indicates that Vick is nearly as toxic today as he was when he left Leavenworth.

About two-thirds of those surveyed recognized Vick's name in 2004 and '06, at the height of his stardom in Atlanta - about the current level of Peyton Manning. His positive Q score hovered around 25, a little short of Manning; his negative Q score, around the 20 range.

The next two studies done, in 2011 and '12, showed that about 80 percent of those surveyed recognized his name for its notoriety more than for its fame. His positive Q score had dropped into the middle teens; his negative Q score nearly doubled.

"The data do not suggest his being a big-market star," Q Scores president Steven Levitt said in an email. "He has not rebounded from the hit his persona has taken."

Not yet, anyway.

Christine Krzyzanowski, senior partner at the Philadelphia marketing firm Two Affix, believes Vick is about to blow up.

Vick currently has deals with Nike, MusclePharm supplements and Unequal Sports football body armor. Krzyzanowski said three "major companies" are considering signing Vick to lucrative deals this season, as long as their vetting process of Vick's recent behavior comes back clean.

Vick hired Two Affix last month in an effort to secure more deals. Two Affix immediately encouraged Vick to engage more with his fans, especially through Twitter. Vick obliged. He quickly bounced to 1.4 million followers.

"That's what the corporations are seeing: him connect with his fans," Krzyzanowski said. "And they want to connect with those fans. They also understand that, no matter what, if they sign Michael, there will be a backlash."

Two Affix research indicates that the most venomous hatred for Vick remains among white women. And yes, Krzyzanowski understands:

When a man oversees the torture and murder of dozens of dogs that he has trained for a brutish life of mutilation and violence, people might hold a grudge.

But, unlike some fallen stars, Vick is in his prime. He might rise again.

"You look at athletes who faced controversy after they finished. Like O.J. could never rebound, because he was done playing. Mark McGwire. The news comes out after the fact," said Kenneth Shropshire, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the faculty director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative. "Michael can still play. He has that advantage."

Shropshire has been at Penn for 26 years. The author of eight books and a specialist in sports and social impact, he has enjoyed a front-row seat to view the arcs of Allen Iverson, of Donovan McNabb and, now, of Vick.

Shropshire considers this season to be perhaps the most important of Vick's career.

"Two things will be pretty telling: how he plays this season and if continues to stay out of trouble," Shropshire said. "That's the other deadly move someone can make in this position: to get caught again, whatever the act might be. Then, it will be, 'We told you so.' "

No one will scream louder than the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The ASPCA helped conduct the investigation into the horrors that happened at Vick's dogfighting compound in Virginia. As such, the ASPCA has been consistent in its condemnation of Vick and disbelieving of his efforts to convince the public of his rehabilitation and regret.

When Vick this summer stated on CNN his desire to once again own a dog, the ASPCA quickly stomped its foot. When asked for comment on its current view of Vick, the organization directed the Daily News to its July statement in response to Vick's desire:

"Michael Vick's journey toward rehabilitation and redemption has not reflected any direct concern for the well-being of animals, and we've never heard him express a shred of empathy toward the dogs he brutalized and killed. What Vick participated in were multi-year, premeditated patterns of violent behavior that inflicted terrible suffering and death on innocent victims. And rather than talk about the horrors and brutalities of dog fighting, Vick has instead chosen to focus on the consequences of getting caught. This approach is especially troublesome because it circumvents the most important point of all, that animals deserve to be treated with compassion and respect. This leads the ASPCA to believe that Vick's actions have been simply self-serving and not remotely expressing remorse."

PETA, a somewhat less-reserved organization, famously called Vick a "psychopath."

For some, Vick can never hope for redemption.

"Mike is doing all the things he needs to do to rectify the situation. But everybody has his own opinion," said Darryl Tapp, an Eagles defensive end and a fellow native of the Hampton Roads region in Virginia. There, dogfighting was, simply, part of the culture.

An accepted part.

"Some people have a good grasp of dogfighting; that it does exist, that it is part of a culture. In some sense, Michael could not understand the gravity of the violation," Shropshire said. "For folks that are from communities where the closest they've heard about dogfighting is cockfighting or bullfighting, it is so far from their culture . . . is so unbelievable, they think, 'This must be an ultrabad person because they embraced it.' "

How could anyone embrace it?

People understand misogyny and addiction and violent crimes against humans. People recoil at the thought of mistreatment of the most defenseless: children and pets.

"Crimes that people are six degrees away from - rape or drug abuse - we're all in that circle in some way," Shropshire said. "Dogfighting? Some people can't even connect the dots to get close to it."

Neither Shropshire nor Tapp minimized the depth of depravity that enables animal cruelty. They simply understand its presence.

"You have two ends of the spectrum: coming from a place where it's there and you don't know it's wrong, to a place where you can't believe it actually exists," Shropshire said. "You think of PETA and many of the zealots and true believers in that community. For them, the harm's been done. People are ultrapassionate, and cannot move away. Even with the good works that he's done, works intensely targeted at that community."

Not all of those works have been fruitless.

"The majority of the people probably have forgiven him, and understand. It was a mistake. A huge mistake. But it was a mistake," Tapp said. "I think a lot of people have acknowledged that he did something wrong, but served his time, and they appreciate the steps he has taken forward to make everyone aware of the [animal-cruelty] situation. But some people will never get past that. You can't change everybody's mind. You can just focus on being the best person you can be."

Will that person be good enough to come back from marketing purgatory?

"Oh, yes," said Andrew Stroth, a Chicago-based sports attorney who has handled marketing for Donovan McNabb for years. "With the right strategy, correctly focused, he can reclaim his status."

That status meant, as a Falcon, more than $7 million a year in endorsements . . . for a quarterback without a single playoff win, playing in a sports town with an indifferent attitude toward its teams and stars.

Last year, Stroth helped Vick take his biggest step back so far when he negotiated Vick's deal that brought him back to Nike.

Still, Vick has just three deals. The values of the deals are unknown. That is a far reach from the lofty corporate status Vick enjoyed when he represented giants like Coca-Cola, Nike, Kraft Foods and AirTran, among others.

"It might not be the same corporate partners, but if Michael wins and stays out of trouble and does his good works, corporate America ultimately will come back," Stroth said. "The key for Michael Vick is winning a Super Bowl. For the Philadelphia Eagles."

Vick's biggest win in the boardroom nearly came after his 2010 campaign, when he led the Eagles to the playoffs.

Vick made it to the final round of fan voting for the cover of the 2012 edition of EA Sports' cult-like football video game, "Madden." (Peyton Hillis, a little-known running back from Cleveland, won.)

EA Sports severed ties with Vick when he went to prison but expressed no qualms about putting him back on the cover, which he graced in 2004.

Consider that a baby step back to the top.

There have been others.

Vick's No. 7 jersey has been a top-10 seller each of the past 2 years.

Two Affix is getting him nibbles.

Vick launched a clothing line called "V7" in late July, just weeks after he married longtime fiancée Kijafa Frink, who is the mother of his two daughters. Advertisers like married men.

Most important, Vick has had no major incidents since he returned to the NFL.

Off the field, he has had few major coups.

"We think he's maybe at 70 percent of where he was," Krzyzanowski said. "We think he can get back to 100 percent."

Perhaps when Vick places more emphasis on his past, when he is more as a reclaimed human, he will enjoy a better future.

"What will happen at some point will be a greater embracement of, 'I have these problems and I've gotten past them. And you can, too,' " Shropshire said. "To make that a part of who he is. It can't be something that nags in the background. This has been a very good path. People who make money off these kinds of decisions think he's headed in the right direction."

Clearly, some people don't think he is there yet.

Or ever will be.


Contact Marcus Hayes at hayesm@phillynews.com.

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