Kevin Sullivan is the founder of Kevin Sullivan Communications, LLC. He was White House communications director under President George W. Bush, and before that was a communications executive with NBC Universal, NBC Sports and the Dallas Mavericks.
Michael Vick’s return to the NFL is inevitable. As long as there is demand for record-breaking, Pro Bowl QBs, there will be a team willing to bet that what he can contribute on the field will be worth the headaches and distractions off it.
Before Vick can put the pads back on, however, he must convince NFL commissioner Roger Goodell he is worthy of reinstatement. Vick’s fancy footwork will do him no good with the commish, who will come at him likeTroy Polamalu in the open field. After all, Vick looked Goodell in the eye and lied about his role in the dog-fighting ring that led to his felony conviction and suspension from the league. He also tested positive for marijuana while awaiting sentencing in 2007. So, they have a few things to talk about.
Goodell, who deserves high marks for taking a tough stance in his handling of off the field issues, recently said Vick would need to convince him that he is genuinely remorseful, has learned from his mistakes and is prepared to be a positive influence.
So how can Vick do that while also convincing a team it’s safe to make a deal with the Falcons to acquire him? Here’s a 4-point plan:
- Be genuine. No prepared statements written by somebody else. Speak from the heart about your remorse and how for the rest of your life you will think every day about the mistakes you made and those you hurt and disappointed. Talk about what it means to be a felon for life and what you thought about during those 19 months in Leavenworth.
- Be humble. You will be under intense scrutiny for the rest of your life. You will always be the guy who killed the dogs. You can’t shout back at the protesters. You can’t be defensive. Listen to Tony Dungy as a spiritual adviser. He will help you and if he sees proof that you are sincere, he might even vouch for you one day. Pass on the reality show pitches. No bling. And, oh yeah: Please stop talking about yourself in the third person.
- Be accountable. Goodell wants to know specifically how your life is going to be different. Commit to ongoing counseling. Commit to specific public service in your new hometown (ask Drew Brees(notes) what he did in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans after signing with the Saints), including a partnership with the Humane Society’s anti-fighting and cruelty campaign
- Be generous. Reinstate your charity foundation and get back to doing good in the community. Pledge to donate tickets to youth groups and speak with them after every home game about how you went from the Pro Bowl to a prison cell. The best way to turn your mistakes into a positive is to use the experience to help at-risk kids not make the same horrific choices. That can be your legacy.
And once Vick lands on a new team, there is one more thing he needs to do to win over the locals: Produce. There is almost no violation so egregious it can’t be fixed by winning. Just ask Kobe Bryant. In 2003 a Colorado hotel employee accused him of sexual assault. (The case was settled before it went to trial.) You would think that would make him less popular, and for a time it did. But he began to put up crazy numbers (81 vs. the Raptors in ’06), got the Lakers back in the Finals, won an MVP Award and an Olympic gold medal. And this season, for the second time in the past three years, Bryant’s No. 24 is the NBA’s top-selling jersey.
Whatever team takes a flyer on Vick is going to need a plan to deal with the outrage from animal lovers and organized protests from PETA.
Local law enforcement should be consulted regarding the best way to accommodate and manage the protesters. Through Vick’s association with the Humane Society of the U.S., the team should help organize a forum so the local animal protection groups feel heard. Through PSAs and community events, Vick can ultimately become a part of the solution to a terrible problem.
We Americans like comeback stories. We believe in second chances. And the most forgiving among us are sports fans, no matter how many times we get burned. Having paid his debt to society, having served an NFL suspension that cost him millions, and having offered a genuine apology and a pledge to help eradicate the scourge of animal cruelty, Vick will have done all he can to deserve a second chance. And who knows, if he helps his new team win, they may even sell some No. 7 jerseys.