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NFL’s Vick to plead guilty

Times Staff Writer

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick announced Monday he has agreed to plead guilty to federal dogfighting charges that could result in a prison term.

Already banned from his team’s training camp with the season opener only weeks away, Vick is also being investigated by the NFL. A suspension by the league could end his athletic career at a point when he should be nearing the peak of his profession.

“We totally condemn the conduct outlined in the charges, which is inconsistent with what Michael Vick previously told both our office and the Falcons,” the league said Monday in a statement. “We will conclude our own review under the league’s personal conduct policy as soon as possible.”

Vick’s lead attorney, Billy Martin, released a statement Monday that said Vick had agreed “to accept full responsibility for his actions and the mistakes he has made. Michael wishes to apologize again to everyone who has been hurt by this matter.”

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Vick will plead next Monday to charges punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Prosecutors are expected to seek a jail term of 10 to 18 months for Vick. Three co-defendants are also accused in a July 18 indictment of running Bad Newz Kennels at a property the quarterback owns in Surry, Va.

According to the indictment, Vick and the others executed poor-performing pit bulls by methods such as hanging, drowning, electrocution, shooting and beating. In an earlier raid on the property, authorities seized about 60 dogs, along with treadmills, a stick used to pry apart fighting animals and a “rape stand” device used to hold down aggressive females for breeding.

Authorities identified Vick as a key player in an operation that dated to 2001, just before his rookie season with the Falcons. The indictment listed at least 30 fights that Vick or other members of the kennel arranged or participated in, including details such as the names of the dogs and the amount of money -- often thousands of dollars -- awarded to the winners of the matches that were frequently fought to the death.

Vick, 27, was among the highest-paid players in the NFL, with salary and endorsement deals reportedly worth more than $20 million a year. Tremendously talented -- last year he became the first quarterback to run for at least 1,000 yards in a season -- Vick had seen his No. 7 jersey consistently rank among the league top sellers. But since the allegations against him arose, sponsors such as Rawlings Sporting Goods, Upper Deck trading cards and apparel-maker Reebok have sacked him.

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A former No. 1 overall draft pick, Vick signed a 10-year, $130-million contract extension in 2004 that guaranteed him an NFL-record $37 million in bonuses.

“We have not seen a fall from grace like this in contemporary American sports,” said longtime NFL agent Leigh Steinberg, who does not represent Vick. “No fall has been this rapid or dramatic.”

The original indictment charged Vick with conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities and conspiracy to sponsor a dog in an animal fighting venture.

Co-defendant Tony Taylor of Hampton, Va., struck a plea deal last month with prosecutors and agreed to testify that Vick financed the operation. On Friday, two more co-defendants -- Purnell Peace of Virginia Beach and Quanis Phillips of Atlanta -- entered similar pleas, agreeing to testify that Vick participated in the killing of dogs.

Legal experts say that the co-defendants who pleaded before Vick did will get lighter sentences because their cooperation led to Vick’s plea. Getting pleas from all four charged is “a grand slam in that it brings all the runners home,” said Barry Boss, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal defense attorney with Cozen O’Connor.

“It resolves the case without a trial, and that gets convictions for everybody who’s charged,” Boss said. “But there are no clear winners or losers yet -- in this game, it’s by how much you lose that makes the difference.”

Vick’s Atlanta attorney, Daniel Meachum, told the Associated Press that the plea deal involves only the federal case, and that he didn’t know whether there have been any discussions about resolving Virginia state charges that might be brought against the quarterback.

Although the league has strongly condemned dogfighting, Steinberg said, it’s the “specter of involvement with gambling” that is most damaging to Vick’s hopes of resuming his NFL career.

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The league has suspended prominent players for gambling before. Green Bay Packers running back Paul Hornung, the NFL’s most valuable player in 1961, was forced to sit out the 1963 season along with Detroit Lions All-Pro defensive tackle Alex Karros after both admitted to betting on NFL games.

Art Schlichter, a quarterback of what was then the Baltimore Colts, was suspended by the NFL in 1983 when it was discovered he had $150,000 in gambling debts. He later wound up in jail for fraud and forgery. Also, thenleague commissioner Pete Rozelle forced New York Jets star and Super Bowl hero Joe Namath to give up his Bachelors III nightclub because of alleged patronage by gamblers.

Vick has not been accused of gambling on NFL games, but the money allegedly exchanged on the dogfighting enterprise would be a violation of the league’s wide-ranging code of conduct rules.

“The league has survived innumerable incidents of player misconduct,” Steinberg said. “Any taint of involvement with gambling would shake it to its foundation. Because the thought that the games are not played on an even playing field puts any sport on a par with pro wrestling.”

Groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had applied heavy pressure to the NFL, Falcons and Vick’s endorsers to cut ties with the player. PETA has called on the NFL to add a ban on cruelty to animals to its personal conduct policy, noting in a statement released Monday that, “This case has clearly shown that NFL fans are just as outraged by cruelty to animals as any of the other antisocial behaviors outlined in the policy.”

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sam.farmer@latimes.com


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