American Football: Michael Vick - Out of the doghouse

One-time superstar quarterback Michael Vick is a free man again having been jailed for organising dogfights. Rupert Cornwell reports from Washington on the fallen Falcon's chances of finding redemption
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If Michael Vick were to follow the example of the erstwhile England striker Michael Owen and send out a promotional brochure to prospective employers, it would read something like this.

Star quarterback in National Football League. Six seasons' experience, including two appearances in post-season playoffs. Multiple honours and achievements, including holder of most rushing yards for a quarterback in a single season. In prime of career, and willing to accept substantial cut in pay.

And that is not all. Like Owen, Vick is 29 years old. But despite having played one of the most destructive sports on the planet, he is in sounder physical condition than the injury-prone Owen touted in the prospectus drawn up by his agent earlier this summer, to hasten his escape from relegated Newcastle United. Indeed, Vick is coming off a couple of years in which he did nothing at all – but that is precisely the problem. Between November 2007 and July 2009, he was behind bars, serving a 23-month federal sentence for operating an illegal dog-fighting ring.

Three short years ago, Vick owned the richest contract in professional American football, a 10-year $130m deal with the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, embellished by lucrative sponsorship earnings that lifted his annual income to upward of $20m (£12m). But in spring 2007 came the fall: the exposure of Vick as owner of the now infamous Bad Newz Kennels in coastal southern Virginia, and prime mover in a multi-state dog-fighting operation, whose stomach-churning details appalled the country. The quarterback who once had the world at his feet was jailed, and then cut loose by the Falcons. The jumbo contract was automatically voided, his sponsors fled, and in mid-2008, Vick was forced to declare personal bankruptcy. He was brought low, like many sports stars before him (and doubtless many to come), by reckless behaviour, greedy hangers on, and an utter inability to manage money.

But now this tale of crime and punishment is entering a new and, it is to be hoped, happier phase. His debt to society paid, Vick was this week formally re-instated in the league by Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner. The forgiveness is conditional. As a free agent, he can sign with any NFL team, take part fully in pre-season training and exhibitions. But he must sit out the first month of the season proper, which begins on Sunday 13 September. Only in late October, the sixth week of games, will Vick be able to play for real – and then only if he behaves himself.

He is, pardon the pun, on a very short leash indeed. "Needless to say, your margin for error is extremely limited," Goodell wrote in a letter to Vick that laid out the terms of his return. In fact, the six-week delay would probably have occurred anyway. Vick is in good shape; but having not been to an NFL team training camp he would almost certainly need the extra time to become truly match-fit. Nonetheless, many of his former playing colleagues are not happy with the Solomonic judgement from Goodell. If he has paid his debt to society, argued Terrell Owens, wide receiver of the Buffalo Bills, "There shouldn't be any grey area with this situation. My problem is with the suspension."

Almost certainly, the commissioner has another motive. Understandably enough, he does not want day one of the new football season, the annual rebirth of the country's most avidly followed major league sport, to be overshadowed by a media feeding frenzy over the return of a felon to active duty. And this reflects a deeper truth. For all its sleek marketing, for all the billions of dollars of revenue, and the passions inspired by the on-field spectacle, the NFL has an off-field image problem that if anything is growing worse.

In 2006, it was calculated by the Washington Post, at least 35 NFL players were arrested for anything from disorderly conduct to burglary. More recently, Adam "Pac-man" Jones, once of the Tennessee Titans and Dallas Cowboys, but currently unemployed, was suspended by the NFL twice after more than half a dozen brushes with the law. Last November, the former New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress managed to shoot himself in the thigh with a handgun he was carrying illegally in a Manhattan nightclub, and prosecutors are seeking a year in jail.

In the most recent blot on the game's reputation, Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers – the reigning Super Bowl champions – faces a civil lawsuit for sexual assault. But the Vick case is far and away the best known; for millions of American dog-lovers (many of them football fans) his offence – jail term or no jail term – remains unpardonable, however much dogfighting is simply part of black culture in his region of the country.

Vick has publicly avowed his "terrible mistakes," and issued a statement thanking Goodell for his second chance, "and the opportunity to become an example of positive change". As an extra guarantee, his official rehabilitation mentor will be Tony Dungy, the beloved former head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, a devout Christian and among the most admired African-Americans in all of US sport. But will it be enough?

Some NFL franchises have made clear they won't touch Vick with a barge pole. Others are keeping quiet but at least half a dozen teams are in no position to ignore his talent. He's young, chastened, and with everything to prove. Fresh from prison, moreover, Vick will not command anything like the money Atlanta were paying him. To be weighed against this however, is the possible adverse reaction among fans, and across the home city of whichever franchise might take him on.

For Michael Owen, escape from Newcastle had a fairy tale ending: a contract with Manchester United, the most successful club in the land, and a chance to resurrect his international career. For Vick, at this make-or-break moment in his life, any NFL team will do.