LAWFUEL – The Legal Newswire – A day after Atlanta Falcons quarterback…

LAWFUEL – The Legal Newswire – A day after Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and three other men were indicted by a federal grand jury in Richmond on conspiracy charges related to their alleged involvement in a dogfighting operation, it was clear that any attempt to separate Vick’s legal troubles from his football career will be problematic, the Washington Post reports.

Vick is scheduled to make his initial court appearance next Thursday in Richmond, the same day his teammates will be on a field in Flowery Branch, Ga., for their opening practice of training camp.

According to a summons issued yesterday, Vick is to appear at a 3:30 p.m. bond hearing before a U.S. magistrate and a 4 p.m. arraignment before U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson. The Falcons are to conduct their first practice of camp under new coach Bobby Petrino at their training facility near Atlanta that afternoon.

Vick is facing up to six years in prison and as much as $350,000 in fines if convicted of the charges of conspiring to sponsor dogs in animal fights and transporting them across state lines to do it. He also could face additional penalties by the NFL, and leaders of animal rights groups said yesterday they were pushing for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to suspend Vick immediately under the league’s new conduct policy for players.

“Commissioner Goodell has made a point of disciplining some players prior to them being prosecuted,” Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said in a telephone interview. “In this case, every indication we’ve gotten is that the NFL intends to wait until the legal process has played out. To us, that would seem to invalidate an independent code of conduct. What do you need a code of conduct for if you’re simply going to wait for the courts to act? We believe Michael Vick should be suspended immediately. This set of activities is heinous. It would seem to warrant harsh treatment under a code of conduct.”

Under the toughened conduct policy imposed by Goodell in April, the commissioner is empowered to discipline a player even if the player has not been convicted of a crime. NFL sources said yesterday that they expect Goodell to suspend Vick but don’t expect it to happen before the legal process is further along. An executive with one NFL team said he would not be surprised to see the Falcons grant Vick a leave of absence at some point to deal with the case.

The NFL Players Association issued a written statement that said: “It’s unfortunate that Michael Vick is in this position, as these allegations are extremely disturbing and offensive. This case is now in the hands of the judicial system and we have to allow the legal process to run its course. However, we recognize Michael still has the right to prove his innocence. Hopefully, these allegations are untrue and Michael will be able to continue his NFL career.”

Pacelle said the Humane Society had written letters to Nike and other companies whose products have been endorsed by Vick, urging them to sever their business ties with the 27-year-old quarterback. AirTran Airways recently decided not to renew Vick’s contract as a corporate spokesman.

“We think they should not be associated with Michael Vick,” Pacelle said. “We want to make sure there is a stigma associated with this conduct.”

Ingrid Newkirk, the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, wrote a joint letter condemning dogfighting with civil rights leader Al Sharpton and rap music executive Russell Simmons to Goodell, Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Vick’s corporate sponsors.

A source said the Falcons expect Vick to return to the Atlanta area after his court appearance and practice the next day. The Falcons traded Vick’s backup, Matt Schaub, during the offseason but signed former Detroit Lions and Miami Dolphins starter Joey Harrington after he was released by the Dolphins. Harrington probably would take over as the Falcons’ starter if Vick is unavailable to play.

If Vick does play, he will face the prospect of having his every move dissected as never before. Veteran agent Leigh Steinberg yesterday likened that prospect to Kobe Bryant continuing to play basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers while facing a sexual assault charge in Colorado that was dropped in 2004, and Barry Bonds chasing baseball’s career home run record as allegations of steroid use swirl around him.

“Athletes have a remarkable ability to compartmentalize,” Steinberg said. “They can put aside controversies — legal problems and off-the-field problems — and put it in one part of their consciousness. Their ability to focus is extraordinary. They can set aside the problems of real life on the football field. . . . In the midst of a lasting and emotionally draining fight, the football field will be a refuge.

“For Kobe Bryant in the midst of his legal problems, playing for the Lakers was his salvation. How does an athlete do it? In many ways when the outside world is threatening, being able to go out onto the field is an emotional salvation. . . . I think Michael Vick is reasonably popular with his teammates. Barry Bonds isn’t. If Michael Vick was Barry Bonds, he’d be sacked on every play.”

Forgiveness from the football-watching public could be a trickier issue, Steinberg said.

“It’s dependent on the stance the player takes,” the agent said. “When an athlete steps up and says: ‘I was engaged in conduct that was wrong. I know it’s not acceptable. I know I am held to a higher standard and will take steps to make sure it won’t happen again,’ the public will be angry but it will forgive. . . . Michael Vick’s problem is with the news cycle. They will take this and run it over and over again in so many ways.

“He’s got a major, major problem and there are not too many people who think hanging a dog or electrocuting a dog — man’s best friend — is a nice thing to do. For a big, tough football player to mistreat a dog, it’s not going to play well.”

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