NFL bars Michael Vick from training camp and Best Friends petitions sports leagues

You’ve probably read about the horrific details contained in the 18-page federal indictment against Atlanta Falcons star quarterback Michael Vick, about what went on inside the heavily wooded property in Smithfield, Virginia, a property Vick owned until he sold it after the dog fighting allegations found their way into the headlines last spring.

Calling for NFL to denounce dog fighting

In response, Best Friends and other animal welfare organizations are pushing the National Football League to denounce dog fighting and institute strong penalties against players associated with it.

The Vick case offers the perfect opportunity.

That’s because he is an extremely high-profile player in a league that by design and circumstance discourages such celebrity. Football owners and coaches want the focus to be on the team, not individual players. Plus, the equipment worn by players, especially their helmets, hides their faces and bodies and tends to take away their individuality.

That’s why the small handful of recognizable stars like Vick are often referred to individually as the "face" of the NFL. Professional football is the most popular sport in the United States, and the NFL is probably the most marketing-savvy of the sports leagues. It is always concerned about its image.

Consequences for dog fighting allegations against Michael Vick

In fact, on Monday NFL commissioner Roger Goodell ordered Vick to stay away from the Falcons' training camp until the league reviews the charges against him.

"While it is for the criminal justice system to determine your guilt or innocence, it is my responsibility as commissioner of the National Football League to determine whether your conduct, even if not criminal, nonetheless violated league policies, including the Personal Conduct Policy," Goodell said in a letter to the quarterback.

Vick, who as a player has yet to live up to the hype surrounding him, has a 10-year, $130 million contract with the Falcons, and endorsement contracts with Nike, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Rawlings and other companies. However, Air Trans Airways recently dropped him as a spokesman, and Nike has suspended release of its Zoom Vick V shoe in light of the "serious and highly disturbing allegations."

Other professional athletes involved in dog fighting blood sport

Vick, of course, is not the first professional athlete to be connected with the blood sport of dog fighting. Former NFL running back LeShon Johnson pleaded guilty to three charges related to dog fighting and is now serving a five-year deferred sentence. And former NBA forward Qyntel Woods faced possible charges of dog fighting before pleading to the lesser charge of animal abuse.

Washington Redskins players Clinton Portis and Chris Samuels have publicly defended Vick, basically saying dog fighting should be legal. Portis later apologized for his comments.

Best Friends petitions organized sports to take a stand against dog fighting

Best Friends wants the major organized sports to take a stand against dog fighting, and so do a lot of people who read the Best Friends Web site. More than 24,000 signed an online petition asking the NFL, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer to take immediate action to stop participation and support of the cruel blood sport of dog fighting.

The petition also asks them to:

  • Announce policies condemning dog fighting as a horrifically cruel, illegal activity that will not be tolerated;
  • Establish stiff penalties, including fines and suspensions, for any high-profile athletes or league employee who associates in any way with dog fighting;
  • Cooperate fully with investigations of athletes alleged to be involved in dog fighting;
  • Cooperate with Best Friends and other animal welfare groups to promote ways to eradicate dog fighting.

Best Friends has also sent a letter to the 32 NFL coaches asking them to be part of a special task force to address the issue.

"We want them to sign the petition and make a public statement on zero tolerance on violence," said Denise LeBeau, network content manager at Best Friends. "Their players are role models for what every 10-year-old wants to be. They have to be accountable for their actions and their words."

Vick investigation and case

The NFL is monitoring the investigation, keeping in touch with investigators and gathering as much information as it can, said Greg Aiello, the NFL’s vice president of public relations. If Vick is found guilty of a crime, he could face a fine or suspension or both under the league’s conduct policy, Aiello said.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recently signed on with the NFL to help the league develop materials to assist the league in its annual presentations to NFL teams.

"As a result of this incident, we’re taking steps to ensure everyone in our league knows the laws regarding the proper care of animals," Aiello said.

Claudine Wilkins, a legislative liaison for Best Friends, also suggests the NFL should consider broadcasting public service announcements during halftime. "They have a huge audience," she said.

The Vick case has put dog fighting back into the national consciousness and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are taking note.

Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia’s voice quivered with emotion Friday as he condemned dog fighting as "barbaric." And U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., fired off a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell urging him to "act swiftly and forcefully" if Vick was involved in dog fighting on his former property.

Lantos, who is a senior member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, even raised the prospect of government intervention if the NFL fails to discipline Vick.

Meanwhile, Georgia Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, is hoping the current case against Vick will bring enough political pressure to pass Georgia Senate Bill 16, which would make it a felony to knowingly sell, train or transport dogs for the purpose of dog fighting. It would also make it a felony to host or promote a dog fight.

But it’s not just professional athletes who are involved in the horrific sport of dog fighting. It’s estimated that more than 40,000 people in the U.S. take part in the blood sport. The average purse is $15,000 but can be as high as $100,000.

And where you find dog fighting, you’ll find illegal drugs and other acts of violence. Dog fighting is also glamorized in gangsta-rap.

"It’s not just Vick, it’s others, too," Wilkins said. "It’s sheer entertainment for them. It’s the latest bling-bling."

Read about the dogs rescued from Michael Vick's dog fighting ring.

Photos by AndreasNYC