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Thursday, April 26, 2007
Michael Vick, Pit Bull Fighting, and The NFL's New Personal Conduct Policy

Last week, Rick had a terrific post that examined whether the NFL's new personal conduct policy affords Commissioner Roger Goodell too much discretion. We now hear, through Deadspin, that Michael Vick has possibly been running an illegal pit bull fighting ring, and it's interesting to speculate how Commissioner Goodell might apply the code to Vick.

So what has Vick allegedly done? Well, he owns a home in Smithfield, Virginia, where state and county animal abuse investigators were recently called in to investigate after local law enforcement officers, who were acting on a search warrant relating to drugs, found that the property was hosting fights between pit bulls. You can read the details here, but basically they found 70 dogs, many of whom were suffering from neglect (including injuries and dehydration). They also found overwhelming evidence of organized pit bull fighting that took place in three buildings behind the home. That evidence included "rape stands (used to allow fighting dogs to breed while preventing them from attacking each other), equipment used to build strength and endurance in fighting dogs, and controlled substances frequently used in dog-fighting." Pretty disgusting stuff, if true, and not to fan the flames, but check out some of the horrific injuries to dogs who are forced to partake in pit bull fighting, as found on Google Images--but be warned, they may make you sick.

In fairness to Vick, 1) no charges have been filed (yet); 2) while he owns the home, he doesn't live there; his nephew does; 3) we have not yet heard his side of the story--it's always easy to jump to conclusions when only side of the story is available; Vick may have an explanation that mitigates, if not exonerates, his role in what appears to be an illegal operation.

But what will Commissioner Goodell do if Michael Vick is indeed charged with animal abuse, which, under Virginia Law (Virginia, Code Ann. 3.1-796.122), is punishable by up to one year in prison and a $2,500 fine?

Sports Law Blog reader Will Li considers that question and wonders whether the sheer expansiveness and vagueness of the new personal conduct policy--characteristics that at first glance would seem to empower Commissioner Goodell--might ultimately prove to be his undoing:
With the news that Michael Vick is in trouble again, I'm wondering how Roger Goodell will act on this.

Ultimately, I think the vague nature of this policy will come back to haunt the Commissioner - in my opinion, the new conduct policy is not only bad for the players, but will be bad for the Commissioner as well.

By not codifying the new rules, each suspension and fine he sets down will more than likely impact public opinion on NFL player discipline and vice versa.

For example, how do we (and perhaps the Commissioner) judge the Vick case? Inevitably, whatever suspension or fine Vick receives is going to be compared and analyzed against the discipline Pac-man got. But how do you compare the actions of the two individuals when they are so different (even if they are both criminally liable)?

Does this seem dangerous to anyone else but me? Because ultimately, the fines and suspensions will be based on morally relativistic judgments, and will be subject to a host of biases, ranging from player prominence, level of public/media outcry, special interests (animal rights groups in the Vick case, potentially), even time of year (off-season, playoffs . . . ).

I don't see how the commissioner can hand down "fair and consistent" decisions when all he has to go on is previous disciplinary actions and public opinion. Such a disciplinary system does not seem very sustainable to me, and could end up reducing the credibility of the Commissioner's role.
Will makes a compelling case. Is he right?


I have limited time to much research on the topic, but I don't feel that it is the Commissioner's duty to hand down "fair and consistent" judgments.

In my humble opinion, the commisioner has the following responsibilites:
1) to preserve the integrity of the league;
2) to operate and preside over the best professional sports league in the world; and
3) to prevent the criminal activity of players from ruining either of the first two responsibilities.

Gooddell keeps it vague to prevent players from weighing criminal activity to a codified punishment. Plain and simple, it really should be a no tolerance policy and Gooddell is reserving the right to make it that way.

Regardless if Vick gets convicted or not, I think ATL should stop worrying about trading up to get Calvin Johnson and start thinking about taking Drew Stanton, John Beck or Kevin Kolb in the middle rounds. In fact, why not Troy Smith?

Prediction: Vick is not the starting QB for the Falcons on Opening Day.

Anonymous Adam -- 4/26/2007 11:39 PM  

Indeed, whoever is responsible faces up to a year in prison for each offense.

Some of those pictures are more jarring than the descriptions in Gonzales v. Carhart.

Blogger Peter -- 4/27/2007 10:06 AM  

If Vick were to actually be charged and even convicted, I'm wondering if the punishment would be less severe, simply because Vick is a star and a veteran. While it was easy to make an example of Pacman Jones and Chris Henry, who are new to the league, and relatively unknown to most fans, Vick is a fan favorite. Do you think Goodell would or should keep this is mind when handing down a punshment?

Blogger brinkmtf -- 4/27/2007 11:58 AM  

For the record, police were executing a warrant related to a drug investigation and happened to find the dogs. According to the cited article, they were not responding to complaints of dog fighting.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/27/2007 12:08 PM  

Did you think he was beyond cruelty? I have always suspected it.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/27/2007 3:04 PM  

An update at the AJC

adam -

I agree that the commissioner has the responsibilities you detail, but doesn't that involve being fair and consistent, especially in these cases, where Goodell is going to, if I'm not mistaken, have control over punishment and any appeal?

I'm not so sure I agree that the policy is vague to prevent players from connecting their activity with a certain league punishment either.

But even if it was a no-tolerance policy, which it could turn into if his judgments went in that direction (and this is what I mean - if he levies a certain fine for one player, and escalates the punishment for another perceivably worse act, how long before his actions become outright punitive?), do we want the NFL passing punishments out without criminal convictions?

I believe that unchecked, this policy could in fact undermine the integrity of the league, just as much as the actions of a select few players could hurt its image.

brinkmtf - This is what I'm wondering too. Would Goodell "make an example" of Vick or another high profile athlete? If so, shouldn't they be able to appeal that the Commissioner is discriminating against them because of their stature in the game? But they would appeal to the Commissioner himself...

Even if Goodell could claim to be unbiased, I just don't see how it's at all possible.

Blogger Satchmo -- 4/27/2007 3:57 PM  


my difficulty is with the codification argument to make things fair and consistent. how do you enumerate the conduct that is not tolerated by the league any other way than by precedent?

it is sort of a hybrid civil law/common law tradition ideal that Gooddell will likely hand down punishments and then codify it in order to dole out future punishments. the problem is that gooddell is new and only has two to use as precedent: pac-man and chris henry.

the vagueness gives Godddell the opportunity to weigh factors like the crime itself, the number of incidents the player is involved with, the popularity of the player and remorse from the player.

i don't think that leagues should dole out penalties unless convicted or plea-bargained (as stated by the NFL Conduct Policy). if gooddell adopts this policy, it could ultimately save a player like vick - who is so high profile, he will likely get out of any charge under the law regardless.

Do you think Pac-Man or Henry or any Joe off the street would have gone scott-free after carrying a shaving cream can used to hold marijuana onto an airplane? Likely not.

Anonymous Adam -- 4/27/2007 5:10 PM  

Adam - I think that is a good point - we shouldn't expect the NFL to make a sheet of rules for player conduct and punishments for various crimes. And in the case of MLB and NBA punishments, I do believe precedent has been used to determine punishment.

But at least in those cases, there was an arbitration/appeals process. I'm not clear on how appeals will work in the case of the NFL.

Blogger Satchmo -- 4/27/2007 7:28 PM  

I hope Michael Vick and all his cronies get strapped to a rape stand in prison like they did to their dogs.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/27/2007 8:15 PM  

Arbitrariness is always a concern, but a vague standard is necessary because the innumerable ways in which players can embarrass themselves and the league. Much like any vague standard, this one will be given meaning over time through precedents.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/27/2007 9:03 PM  

Anon - Precisely my point.

Will - NFL Conduct Policy will likely change over time. I think Gooddell wants to put his stamp on the league.

I would humbly advise Gooddell not to go down that dark, windy road of doling out punishments to those that were accused but not found guilty under the law.

He would end up in the NBA's Stern-land where one can be fined $50,000 for a play that wasn't even deemed a foul when it happened.

"The league retroactively assessed Bryant with a flagrant foul for an elbow to Philadelphia’s Kyle Korver last week, a play that didn’t even draw a foul when it happened."

I don't see any logic, let alone fairness or consistency, there...

Blogger Adam W -- 4/27/2007 11:57 PM  

Punishment/Legal sanction is supposed to be situational, taking into account a host of factors. Will Li's original e-mail mentions many of those--the nature of the underlying misconduct, in-season or out-of-season, how high-profile the conduct, etc. We hope Goodell will not use anything as unfair as the relative fame of the player. But if Goodell's concern is the "integrity of the game," all of these sound like relevant considerations.

Judges and juries do this all the time, in both civil and criminal cases. I agree that too much discretion in one person is not a good thing, so perhaps some guidance as to HOW these factors will play out would be helpful.

Still, even if Vick is charged or convicted, it does not mean that he ought to receive the same sanction as Jones. The crimes at issue w/ Vick are misdemeanors--and (I am guessing) rarely if ever result in prison time. On the table with Jones is, from what I can tell, (at least) assault.

I do not see why the line of "wait to see if he is convicted in a court of law" is so important. Whatever action the NFL takes is, by definition, less than a deprivation of liberty as criminal punishment imposed by the state, so a lesser standard is par for the course. Someone can be civilly liable for some acts even if not criminally liable for the identical acts. Why should someone not also be potentially subject to sanction within his (private) job even if not criminally liable.

Plus, some conduct subject to league punishment may not even be a crime. Jones really is in trouble for "making it rain" (legal) and the overall brouhaha that resulted in the bouncer being shot (for which there is no indication Jones is liable). So the line of "has he been convicted" may not be the appropriate line for thinking about how Goodell should police the league.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 4/28/2007 6:46 AM  

Howard raises some good points about the fact that a private organization is held to a lesser standard than the state. But the key issue that I think is getting lost is that, unlike most private organizations, the NFL is subject to the labor laws. The new conduct policy pertains to a mandatory subject of collective bargaining, and therefore must be negotiated with the players.

I think an interesting question worth discussion and debate is whether the new policy was properly negotiated with the players, pursuant to a quid pro quo arm's length bargaining, in compliance with labor law. I read that Goodell discussed the policy with Gene Upshaw and a panel of 6 players (not all the player reps. of each of the teams). Does this satisfy the requirement? And you can even get into questions of whether all the players were fully and properly informed in order to make a decision about it.

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 4/29/2007 9:12 AM  

Prof. Karcher:

Did the players vote on this, or did some subset (or union executives) agree to it as an amendment to the CBA?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/29/2007 2:56 PM  


The players did not vote on the new policy, and it is not part of the CBA.

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 4/29/2007 9:38 PM  

Isn't this a mandatory subject of collective bargaining? How did the NFL impose it without union agreement?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/30/2007 5:00 PM  

It's funny how everyone is so quick to accuse Michael Vick of being involved. As far as him being punished by the Falcons, how are you going to punish someone without any proof?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 5/01/2007 1:05 PM  

Vick has commented publicly that he was interested in dog fighting. He has a history of trouble with the law ( has he learned anything.... does he care?) He has been seen many times at the kennels by neighbors (and of course, he says he has never been there.)

He is a chronic liar, no respect for his team or others, and enables his relatives.... his time is up. remove him from the team... Yes, he

Anonymous Anonymous -- 5/01/2007 9:18 PM  

This isn't the first time we've known about some football players and their unconscionable behavior regarding the cruelty to dogs.

Michael Vick and other players who are cruel to these poor helpless dogs need to be FIRED!!!! He is a looser!!
What kind of person does this to animals? What kind of people in power positions in the NFL allow their players to behave like this...and get away with it?!
Disgusting. They should be embarrassed. What do their children and grandchildren think of them to condone this?
Vick should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. Ideally, he'd be treated the way those dogs were!

Anonymous Anonymous -- 5/03/2007 8:08 PM  

Ahh its only a damn dog!! Get over it. What about all the people we are killing in the middle east in the name on Jesus!! Vick is an upstanding citizen. Why not concentrate on much bigger things like impeaching Bush!!! Its Bush's fault anyways!

Anonymous Reunpack -- 7/20/2007 11:46 AM  

this is to the guy at the bottom, they may be dogs but they are living creatures. when they are brought some where to fight they dont have any other option but to fight. they cant just stand up and say, ya know what? im outa here like you may be able to. so think twice about this and bush didnt say,,,, hey vick, here is a couple of pit bulls go gamble off of em'. you disgust me.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 10/18/2007 5:05 PM  

okay i made a mistake the comment above this, is not the one i am refering to the comment above that is the one i am refering to. SORRY MY BAD! but i dont take back what i said never in a million years

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