We are now officially in the NBA’s dog days, that period where the marquee free agents have all signed but training camps are still weeks away. So I thought it’d be interesting to take a weekend break from our regularly scheduled basketball banter to attend to the unfolding dogfighting allegations against Michael Vick.
Knicks fans may recall Qyntel Woods, who came to the team after essentially being run out of Portland following his involvement in dogfighting and subsequent plea to misdemeanor animal cruelty charges. The difference between Woods’ situation and Vick’s indictment is not a trivial one. It lies in the scale and scope of the alleged enterprises. If you are so inclined you can download the federal indictment against Vick (a/k/a “Ookie”) along with three other defendants (Adobe Acrobat Reader required).
Now I’m no animal enthusiast. I’ve never owned a pet, not even as a child. But animal bloodsports, whether it’s dogs, cocks, or even bullfights, seem incredibly cruel to me. Putting aside that they are violations of federal and most states’ laws, they just aren’t my cup of tea no matter how acceptable they are in a given local culture. Still, my personal distaste for bloodsports isn’t the point of this blog entry.
What I find noteworthy about the Vick indictment is its potential to create a major gash in the NFL’s seemingly impregnable brand. I continue to marvel at how the NFL has managed to escape the steroid/HGH witch hunt that beset baseball despite having a much longer history of steroid abuse and far stronger circumstantial grounds for half-cocked speculation. Shawne Merriman went to the Pro Bowl the same year he was suspended for steroid use with media backlash barely comparable (maybe even less) to that aimed at the likes of Gary Matthews, Jr.
What may make Vick’s case stick to the heretofore Teflon NFL shield this time however is the presence of the word “gambling” in his indictment. This isn’t a case of boorish behavior (a la Stephen Jackson’s, Pac Man Jones’, and Tank Johnson’s nightclub escapades). This isn’t Nate Newton making a midnight run in a van filled to the windows with weed. This is not even the embarrassing number of NFL players, like Jamal Lewis or former Tampa Bay placekicker Donald Iguebuike, indicted for their direct involvement in serious drug deals while playing. (Note: Lewis was convicted on lesser charges while Iguebuike was acquitted.)
In the Vick case gambling is the sports story–not dogfighting. The dogfighting is a story about cruelty, in my opinion. Not surprisingly, the dogfighting has been the A-plot thus far in a slow news summer. That’s quite likely to change over time, especially now that the enterprise operating on Vick’s property has been shut down. Player involvement in illegal gambling has always been a special kind of no-no in pro and college sports in a way that other kinds of crimes are not for one big obvious reason. Illegal gambling attracts organized crime–real organized crime. It has never mattered to sports leagues since the Black Sox whether a player is taking action in his own sport or other sports. Gambling attracts the kinds of criminals that potentially compromise players and ultimately threaten the integrity of their play. I should note, no one is speculating that Vick is consorting with the Sopranos or the Goodfellas. Rather, the indictment says that he and his co-defendants are freelancers who set up their own little tax-exempt dogfighting slice of Vegas in suburban Atlanta.
In fact once I saw the size of the Vick compound I immediately speculated that gambling attracted the feds to this case, animal cruelty notwithstanding. Dogfighting may be senseless macho cruelty aimed at animals but it’s also a growing national spectacle where wagers are routine. CBSNews.com reports champion dogs netting upwards of $100,000 in winnings for their owners. The Vick indictment puts the typical pot in each fight at about $2000–$1000 for each side. But some of the pots from these regional events allegedly went into the tens of thousands, suggesting that real money is being wagered. That kind of money draws shoeflies.
The Vick indictment explicitly charges him and the other defendants with gambling, in violation of both Virginia and U.S. statutes. Of course I have no idea about Vick’s involvement in this matter beyond his ownership of the property. It’s not my place to sit in judgment of him or the other defendants; nor do I feel any compulsion to do so. Yet, the specter of one of the league’s five or six most marketable assets engaged in a shady underground criminal enterprise must bewilder the new commissioner and Falcon’s owner Arthur Blank. I’m not suggesting the NFL is going to fold up its tent even if Vick is convicted but at minimum this is going to be very, very costly to the Falcons and to the league in the short term.
There is an interesting irony in all this. Player involvement in gambling has always been a no-no but the NFL’s emergence as the newest bully on the sports block has been fueled in large part by gambling. “The Shield” is by far the most gambler-friendly of the big three leagues, and unabashedly so. The league is not at all shy about Vegas betting lines, where these are virtually never mentioned on official league-sponsored NBA or MLB telecasts. The league’s frequent and detailed injury status reports to the public are about gambling, not goodwill. Even way back in the old days, in 2003 B.D.–that’s Before DirecTV–a BusinessWeek article reported that the annual action on the NFL in Vegas was $560 million, roughly 12% of league revenue, and that’s just on legal bets. If anything the DirecTV contract inflated the Vegas action by bringing more teams into the living rooms of sports’ most… ahem… loyal fans. Now, perhaps the most potent challenge to the NFL brand’s newfound front-runner status comes in the form of a dogfighting scandal that is likely to turn into a gambling scandal.
Wait. On second thought, maybe that’s not ironic at all.