- Jeffri Chadiha, ESPN Staff Writer
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There really isn't much left to say about Michael Vick now that he has accepted a plea agreement in the wake of his indictment on federal dogfighting charges. It will be interesting to see how harshly he is punished for his transgressions. It also will be intriguing to see if Vick has any semblance of an NFL career left once he finishes serving time in prison. What I'm wondering today, however, is if the next athlete with superstardom foisted upon them can learn anything from what happened to the Atlanta Falcons' two-time Pro Bowler.
The one aspect of Vick's story that hasn't received nearly enough attention is his celebrity. The man simply became too big too quickly, and that is one reason that he is in his current predicament. Keep in mind that this isn't just about money, posses and extremely poor decision-making. It's about a big-time talent with way too much hype and an inability to realize the responsibility that comes with that combination.
I have no interest in making excuses for Vick. He broke the law; he pays the price. But there's also a part of me that believes he would've been better off if so many people hadn't fallen in love with his potential. Even when the Atlanta Falcons handed him a 10-year, $130 million contract in December 2004, that money was based as much on his value as a marketing megastar as it was on his mesmerizing ability. That also happened to be the first serious mistake Falcons owner Arthur Blank made: He believed his star was mature enough to deliver on that kind of promise.
As it turned out, that commitment only gave Vick more reason to carry himself like an untouchable icon. He clearly had an air of invincibility because so many of his problems were downright silly. Whether he was drawing unneeded attention to himself for carrying a suspicious water bottle through Miami Airport or hanging out with sketchy friends who had the potential to ruin his name, he handled himself as if trouble was something he could elude with a timely juke and his trademark speed. Let's face it: The dogfighting charges were just one more example of how Vick believed he could do practically anything he wanted.
This situation can serve to educate other athletes -- and owners -- because there is an obvious danger in validating a player too early in their career. Some pro athletes can handle the responsibility of carrying themselves as professionals once they have financial security and instant celebrity. However, others allow that easy money and the accompanying fame to cloud their decision-making and jeopardize their opportunities. Vick clearly fell into the latter category.
Now it's apparent that more pro football players will have to learn how to package themselves as their careers take off. Though the NFL constantly tries to market teams over individuals, there is simply a greater likelihood that more young stars will draw more hype before their talent justifies it. Look at New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush. Even though he faced a scandal at the start of his career -- there were allegations that his family received improper benefits from sports marketers while he was at USC -- he's handled his fame well.
Bush managed to keep that controversy from damaging his reputation because he was prepared to handle the hype that surrounded him.
"Reggie was caught up in a scandal of his own, but he was a very polished young man," said David Carter, who serves as executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute. "You could see it from the way he handled himself in New Orleans and in the media. Unfortunately, the way we judge athletes sometimes is by how well they can manage controversy."
Carter already sees a trend: More athletes will look to develop the polish of a Bush while avoiding the ignorance of Vick. Carter said today's athletes must be more concerned with packaging themselves so they can better handle the trappings that come with fame.
"You see kids picking schools now based on what program can best prepare them for being in the limelight," Carter said. "In fact, it's pretty evident now that athletes don't start packaging themselves and building their brands on draft day anymore. It starts when they sign their letters of intent."
Of course, there are plenty of examples of current stars who can handle their fame, including quarterbacks Peyton Manning of the Colts, Donovan McNabb of the Eagles and Tom Brady of the Patriots. But there are very few men who have had to deal with what Vick created. Unlike those other three players, Vick wasn't a polished player when he became the wealthiest man in football. He was an exceptionally gifted athlete who benefited greatly from the coddling supplied by an organization unwilling to address his flaws until it was too late.
See, what players like Manning, Brady and McNabb understand is that the bigger you become, the more cautious you must be. This lesson clearly never reached Vick and it cost him. Now that he's facing prison time, we can only wonder if he can fathom why his life tumbled out of control. The sad thing is that I doubt he can even apply that type of perspective at such a disturbing time.
But there will come a day when he'll try to make sense of this and I'd imagine his thoughts will drift to some of the points made here. The bottom line is that his career could have been different if he hadn't been given so much so soon. Vick is paying a hefty price for that now. Let's hope that somebody else with his kind of potential can learn something from his story.
Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
2dDoug Clawson, ESPN Stats & Information