Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Goodell: Vick can get a 2nd chance

LEXINGTON -- The decision lies in the hands of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

The opportunity lies at the feet of Michael Vick.

Based on Goodell's comments here Tuesday night, all the former Virginia Tech quarterback has to do is pick it up, seize that second chance and run.

If you're reading this in prison, Michael, here's some advice: Just don't screw it up. Don't hedge your apology. Don't downplay your past mistakes. Don't hire a corps of PR people to tell you what to say, then flub the rehearsed speech.

When you talk to the commissioner, speak from the heart. Stutter if you must. But mean what you say, then act accordingly. Only then will you be playing football again.

Vick's scheduled to be transferred to home confinement on May 21 and released from federal custody on July 20. But before he can even think about returning to the football field, he's got to be reinstated to the league by the Goodell, the toughest sheriff in the West, a man who's built a reputation as a hardliner on discipline.

That's the bad news for the Vick. The good news? Goodell, in Lexington for a leadership presentation at Washington and Lee, sounds like he's ready to reinstate Vick -- provided the quarterback shows that he's a different man than the one who pleaded guilty to bankrolling a dogfighting ring in August 2007.

"I've said before that I'll review the matter once he's completed all of his legal issues," Goodell said following his presentation. "And at that point in time, I will want to meet with Michael. I will want to meet with his people. I will want to meet with other professionals to understand: Does he understand the mistakes he made? Is he genuine and [does he] have remorse for those actions? And is he prepared to handle himself different going forward? That will ultimately be my decision."

You'd like to think showing remorse will be easy for Vick to do. He's lost everything. He's embroiled in bankruptcy hearings. He needs money and, more importantly, a semblance of hope, and football is it.

But as we've seen before, the Vicks don't always learn. They don't always do -- or mean -- what they say.

This time, there's no alternative.

"Our issue is trying to do the right thing and represent the NFL in the best possible way," Goodell said.

"Michael did an egregious thing. He has paid a very significant price for that. And if he's learned from that, and he's prepared to live a different life, I think the general public is forgiving on that when people are genuine about that, they show remorse and they're prepared to live a better life. It's something he has to prove to myself and the general public."

Goodell will not be conned.

"Do not reflect poorly on the shield" has been his motto since taking over the league almost three years ago, and almost every action he's taken has been in accordance with that philosophy. He's instituted a stiff personal conduct policy. He's suspended players. He's confiscated draft picks.

"I think that's part of who he is; it's the core of his fabric," said his older brother Bill Goodell, a W&L law school graduate who helped lure the commissioner to Tuesday's event. "It's part of the reason I wanted him to come to W&L. It's about integrity. It's about performance. It's about honor. It's about civility. He embodies all of those things."

Roger Goodell says discipline is a very small part of his job, but you could have fooled the crowd of about 250 students gathered at Lee Chapel on Tuesday. Almost all of the early questions posed to Goodell involved player conduct.

The commissioner answered them all politely before throwing his hands up and smiling.

"This is not my full-time job, though," he said. "I do other things other than discipline."

Eventually the questions from students turned to international expansion, the NFL Network and the economy's impact on the league. But Goodell understands that there's interest in his conduct philosophy.

"I consistently get that from fans, that they want to see people held to a higher standard and be accountable for their actions," he said.

Of course, there hasn't been a higher-profile case of that than Vick. Animal lovers make up a huge part of this country, and they've made their voices heard.

Goodell hears them. But he also hears a voice inside that champions compassion and rehabilitation.

While Goodell said "there's no greater impact" on a player than suspending him, he doesn't like doing it.

"It's the least fun for me," he said.

"Players love to play the game. Coaches love to coach the game. You don't want to do that. Our efforts here are to try to help people avoid making mistakes, not having to discipline people. I'm not trying to reinforce failures. We're trying to create success."

Vick still has a chance to be one of those preferred stories. But ultimately, this isn't up to the sheriff.

It's up to the ex-con.

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