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Few ads in Vick’s future

Times Staff Writer

The “Neuter Vick” T-shirts that appeared on EBay shortly after Michael Vick’s legal troubles became public knowledge captured the burgeoning and sometimes ugly backlash against the NFL star.

On Monday, the beleaguered Vick agreed to plead guilty to federal charges in connection with an illegal dogfighting ring that was operating on property he owns in rural Virginia. But his public image as the talented Atlanta Falcons quarterback already was badly damaged.

Last month, when he was indicted, Vick’s marketing strength dissipated as his troubles grew. The NFL told the former No. 1 draft choice to stay away from training camp. Rawlings unceremoniously dumped him as a pitchman for inflatable footballs and other sporting goods. Upper Deck pulled his newest trading card. Reebok halted sales of his No. 7 Falcons jersey. And Nike delayed the introduction of its Air Zoom Vick V shoe.

Monday’s guilty plea, legal observers said, is designed to head off additional federal charges after three co-defendants pleaded guilty and indicated they would testify that Vick helped execute dogs that lost fights. That last allegation may have been the end to his marketability, given the repercussions of the societal taboo against animal abuse.

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But given the rush to the exits by Vick’s existing corporate partners, sports marketing and public relations specialists suspect that the former Virginia Tech star’s days as a product pitchman were already over.

“I expect all the corporations to run away from him,” said Ronn Torossian, president of New York-based 5W Public Relations. “His brand is finished. It’s over with.

“Today is the sign that Michael Vick is untouchable for corporate America. The best PR advice I would have for Michael Vick is to work out hard and try to stay in shape because if he’s going to make any money it’s going to be on the field, not off.”

Other athletes, most notably Kobe Bryant and Ray Lewis, offer proof that it’s possible for athletes to weather off-the-field legal crises. Neither athlete was found guilty, but both were hurt off the field by the allegations because, in the sports marketing arena, corporations strive mightily to protect their carefully honed images from even the faintest whiff of scandal.

Nike stuck by Bryant after he was charged with felony sexual assault in 2003, but didn’t feature him in a major advertising campaign until 10 months after the charges were dropped in 2005. That campaign succeeded, an advertising professor said at the time, because it portrayed the Lakers star “as a real person who has made mistakes.”

And, last summer, Bryant snared another deal that put his image on the packaging for NBA 07, a Sony video game.

Lewis was accused of murdering two men in Atlanta in 2000, but the case fell apart and never went to trial. Lewis continued to excel on the football field and the following year was named MVP of Super Bowl XXXV. Though Lewis wasn’t awarded the then-obligatory trip to Disneyland, he subsequently signed marketing deals with athletic shoe and apparel company Reebok and video game giant EA Sports.

Vick’s guilty plea, to be entered next week, came as the athlete faced a Nov. 26 trial date in Richmond, Va. The plea could lead to a prison sentence, and, depending upon a separate investigation by the NFL, a possible lifetime ban.

“I don’t think any major marketers are going to bite, no pun intended,” said Bob Dorfman, a San Francisco-based advertising agency executive who compiles the quarterly Sports Marketers’ Scouting Report. “It’s not like marketers don’t have any other choices. There are a lot of good, young quarterbacks out there like Vince Young and Jamarcus Russell. It’s not like everyone is going to be waiting for him to come back to sell a pair of shoes.”

The damage already done to Vick’s reputation was evident in a recent survey completed by Dallas-based Davie Brown Talent, which measures celebrity appeal among athletes and performers. Consumer awareness of Vick increased noticeably during July -- but for the wrong reason -- as media reports detailed the dog-fighting scandal. Scott Sanford, a senior client director with the firm, attributed the rise to “people who didn’t know him at all before he was brought up on charges.”

In addition to winning back football fans who appreciated Vick’s distinctive playing style at Virginia Tech and in Atlanta, Vick must combat ill will among consumers who know him only as the guy who got caught up in the largely hidden and gruesome world of dog-fighting.

Those interviewed for this story agreed that it is conceivable Vick could salvage his football career -- if he isn’t found in violation of the league’s tough new personal conduct code, keeps in shape during a likely prison stay, once again gets hired by an NFL franchise and, ultimately proves his value to sports marketers by repeatedly leading a team deep into the NFL’s postseason.

But then Vick would face the heavy lifting that will be necessary to restore his badly damaged reputation among corporations with hundreds of athletes, entertainers and celebrities who can pitch their goods and services.

“It’s going to take a lot of time, effort and money -- not just lip service -- to show that he knows that he made a mistake,” Dorfman said. “He would have to work hard, volunteer for the ASPCA and PETA. And, even then, it’s a big question mark.”

It’s doubtful, advertisers said, that even companies that like to be unconventional -- think music and apparel -- would be willing to take a chance with Vick.

“Edgier companies, the non-traditional, non-conservative companies, don’t necessarily want all that baggage associated with Vick,” Sanford said.

It was uncertain Monday if Vick’s decision to enter a guilty plea would lead to the severing of his remaining corporate ties.

Nike, for one, won’t comment on its relationship with Vick until after next week’s hearing during which Vick will enter his plea, a spokesman said.

But longtime player agent Leigh Steinberg said a comeback is possible for Vick.

“The American public loves the fall of the high and mighty, but they also love to forgive, and they love a good comeback story,” Steinberg said. “History’s replete with athletes who’ve come back into the public’s good graces with the passage of time, as long as the destructive incident and behavior is not repeated. Time does heal a lot.

“Kobe Bryant’s not perceived today how he was [four] years ago. Ray Lewis does national endorsements.”

Assuming that Vick plays again -- and plays well -- Steinberg believes any troubled but gifted player could get a second chance: “If an athlete is friendly and sincere and plays hard, if he’s involved in charity, stays friendly to fans, he’ll find people are forgiving. People want to like athletes.”

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Times staff writer Lance Pugmire contributed to this report.

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greg.johnson@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Michael Vick dogfighting case timeline

Compiled by the Newport News (Va.) Daily Press

April 20, 2007: Davon Boddie, Michael Vick’s cousin, is arrested in the parking lot of a Hampton nightclub after a police dog alerted its handler that marijuana might be in Boddie’s vehicle. Boddie, 27, is charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

April 25: Investigators search the Surry County property where Boddie lives. The property is owned by Vick, a Newport News native and Atlanta Falcons quarterback. Investigators find dogfighting items and more than 60 dogs, some scarred.

April 26: Vick, 27, says he’s never at the property, a white-brick house that sits on 15 acres.

May 9: Vick puts the property on the market for $350,000, less than half of its assessed value. It’s under contract in less than a day. The sale has not been recorded in the circuit court clerk’s office.

May 21: Investigators meet with Surry County Commonwealth’s Attorney Gerald Poindexter to discuss evidence. They leave the meeting without comment.

June 7: Federal agents are seen digging and removing evidence at the Surry property.

July 6: Federal agents return to the property to dig some more.

July 17: Vick and three others are indicted on a charge of conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities and to sponsor a dog in an animal-fighting venture.

July 23: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell tells Vick to stay way from Falcons’ training camp as the league investigates the case.

July 30: The first co-defendant pleads guilty.

Aug. 17: Two other co-defendants plead guilty.

Aug. 20: Vick’s lawyer issues a statement that says Vick has agreed “to enter a plea of guilty to those charges and to accept full responsibility for his actions.”


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