One of the most spectacular falls from grace in the history of American sport was sealed yesterday as star quarterback Michael Vick formally pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and involvement in dog-fighting, that could see him jailed for a year or more.
Appearing at a federal court in Richmond, the 27-year-old Vick filed a written plea in which he admitted killing between six and eight dogs at the Bad Newz Kennels he owned, and providing money for gambling on fights – though he denied personally placing bets, or taking any share of the winnings.
Standing erect and answering the judge's questions in a quiet voice, the Atlanta Falcons superstar apologised for what he had done, acknowledging he could face prison for up to five years under federal sentencing guidelines. Most experts expect a term of only 12 to 18 months, but judge Henry Hudson made clear nothing could be taken for granted. "You're taking your chances here," he told Vicks in a hushed court. "You'll have to live with whatever decision I make." Sentencing is set for early December.
The sensational case erupted in late April with the discovery of pit bulls and dog-fighting paraphernalia at a house owned by Vick in rural south eastern Virginia. The football player initially vowed to fight the charges, but changed his mind after three accomplices struck plea bargains with the authorities.
He thus joins the tiny club of sports stars whose careers were cut short at their height or thrown into turmoil by legal problems. Their number includes Mike Tyson, jailed on rape charges in 1992, and "Shoeless Joe" Jackson, barred from baseball for life after his Chicago White Sox team threw the 1919 World Series.
Vick had been one of the biggest stars of the National Football League, a quarterback of explosive speed and phenomenal throwing power. He was in the middle of a record-breaking $137m (£68.5m), 10-year contract with the Falcons, not to mention a host of lucrative endorsement deals.
Now his future is utterly uncertain. He has already been dropped by the Falcons, and indefinitely suspended by the NFL, under Commissioner Roger Goodell's drive to clean up the off field reputation of the League. At least two other players involved in brushes with the law have been already handed long suspensions by Mr Goodell.
Appearing briefly before reporters in a Richmond hotel after entering the guilty plea, Vick was contrition personified. "I want to apologise for all the things I've done and all the things I've allowed to happen," he said. "Dog fighting is a terrible thing and I do reject it. I take full responsibility for my actions. What I did was very immature, I need to grow up."
At a separate press conference in Atlanta, Falcons owner Arthur Blank made clear Vick faced a host of problems with the franchise, even though he held out the prospect that, his debt to society paid, the quarterback might yet play professional football again. "Although we don't know what the future holds for Michael, I do believe in redemption. Maybe he'll have an opportunity to play in the National Football League again," Blank said.
For the time being, Vicks remains on the Atlanta roster. To cut him from the team "might make us feel better emotionally, but it's not in the best interest of the Falcons," the owner added. A final decision was tied to "legal, contractual, and personnel issues" that had to be sorted out - among them the team's efforts to get back at least $22m (£11m) of the signing bonus he received under his 2004 contract.
Last night the Falcons were playing an exhibition game against the Cincinnati Bengals, in an early test of the impact of the hugely popular Vick on Falcons' ticket sales. The team has registered 51 consecutive regular season sellouts, largely credited to his presence on the field.
His disgrace caps a summer of sporting scandal here. Barry Bond's successful chase for the home run record again turned a spotlight on allegations of widespread steroid use in baseball. In basketball, the referee Tim Donaghy admitted betting on games in which he officiated, raising fears about the integrity of the NBA.Reuse content