Road back to NFL not easy for Vick

If Michael Vick is going to make it back to the NFL, there’s one thing he has to get exactly right. His apology.

And the time for that draws closer.

Late last month, the disgraced 28-year-old quarterback passed another checkpoint in his transition from convict back to — perhaps — NFL quarterback. Vick will serve the final 60 days of his 23-month sentence under house arrest beginning on or soon after May 21.

Whether Vick ultimately makes it from Leavenworth, Kan., where he’s been serving his sentence for bankrolling and participating in an infamous dogfighting operation, to an NFL franchise near you is still unresolved.

He first has to make amends with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who may still impose an additional suspension after Vick’s prison term is served. But even if Goodell bounces Vick for the 2009 season when Vick’s sentence ends in July, Vick could feasibly be on the market for teams by this time in 2010.

And then the real difficulty begins. How can Vick convince Goodell, NFL owners, one of the league’s 32 teams and a dog-loving America that he’s served his time and should be allowed to return to work?

“The first thing Michael has to do really is not football-related,” said Joe Theismann, a Super Bowl-winning quarterback and 1983 NFL MVP for the Washington Redskins and an NFL analyst for 19 seasons on ESPN. “The first thing he needs to do is, in some way, make the people of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and animal lovers understand that he knows he made an egregious mistake. He erred. He’s contrite. And if he’s given the opportunity to play in the NFL again, part of his contract will go to the protection of animals. But he must let fans know he’s truly remorseful for his conduct. He has to become a part of society again, not alienated and identifiable as a criminal.

“If he wants to play, he’ll need to meet with PETA,” Theismann stressed. “He needs to say to them, ‘I want to continue in my profession. I’m not seeking your blessing, but what can I do to go to work each day and not have pickets outside my workplace?’ That’s the first thing he needs to do.”

The specter of daily pickets outside a practice facility, the inevitable tsk-tsking from the media, edgy local sponsors who won’t want their company name within 1,000 miles of Vick — these are all going to be concerns for the team that takes a chance on the three-time Pro Bowler.

“Our society is generally willing to give a person a chance at redemption, and there are franchises that may be better positioned to take on that challenge,” says Paul Kirk, former media relations director for the Denver Broncos and co-founder of ProLink Sports, a Denver-based company specializing in image enhancement for pro athletes. “The first step in the process depends greatly upon Vick’s ability to express genuine remorse for his transgressions and convey humility in asking for a second chance.”
Once a team decides to acquire Vick, it has to be steadfast, Kirk stressed.

“It is important that the franchise delivers a clear message to fans, media, sponsors and partners about why it has acquired Michael Vick, and is prepared to convey that message consistently,” he said.

Kirk worked up a plan for how a franchise should proceed when unveiling Vick. In it, he said the message from the team has to center on three themes.

1) An understanding that there will be those who disagree with the decision.

2) Expressing that a great deal of thought and due diligence went into the decision, and reminding that Vick has paid a price for his transgressions; he has sufficiently abided by the government’s sentencing demands and earned reinstatement from the Commissioner.

3) Acknowledging that the franchise has a responsibility to be a positive contributor to its community, but is also committed to putting the best possible team on the field for its fans, and must thoroughly consider all available options.

Then, said Kirk, comes the introductory press conference.

Lauren Bloom, author of “The Art of Apology” and founder and CEO of Elegant Solutions Consulting, said that Vick has to be totally accepting of responsibility.

“We understand that dogfighting is part of a subculture in this country but when Michael became a professional football player, he chose to be part of mainstream society,” said Bloom. “His worst mistake would be saying somebody else made me do it or that it was part of something he was accustomed to doing. And he must proactively talk about why it’s a bad thing. It’s so brutal. It’s not only wrong but something that people find abhorrent. His franchise will have to demonstrate they recognize that too.”

Kirk advised against unfettered access to Vick after that first press conference.

“After all the issues have been addressed, I would advise against one-on-one interviews or follow-ups, and allow Vick to focus on the task of playing football again,” he explained. “It would be advisable to carefully structure his media interactions and present his future availability in a group setting for the time being.”

The team that takes a chance on Vick needs to be a solid one, says Kirk.

“The team best situated to handle the addition of Michael Vick is one with an established history of success and a head coach in a fairly secure position, but most likely with an unsettled quarterback situation,” he theorized. “If he’s not brought in to compete and have a legitimate shot at playing and helping the team win, it’s probably not worth the risks that come with it. But if you have these elements in place, you most likely have a fan base that will accept the risk for the potential payoff, and a veteran locker room with strong leaders who might be capable of bringing him into the fold and helping him grow.”

In his time as an analyst, Theismann got to know Vick well.

“I root for Michael Vick the athlete, but I root for Michael Vick the man even more,” said Theismann. “I don’t think time away from game will hurt him as a player. I really don’t. But he has to really, really, really show in a compelling way he’s contrite. He has paid a debt to society. Physically. Financially. Emotionally. But this is a social issue first and an athletics issue second.”