- John Helyar, Sports Business
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ATLANTA -- Until Monday, Michael Vick still had a core of supporters here. A city that had suffered through decades of Atlanta Falcons losses thrilled at his brilliance. A city that was the cradle of the civil rights movement identified with an embattled black man. At least, a good part of the black population did.
But at the news of Vick's agreement to plead guilty to federal dogfighting charges on Monday afternoon, many of the last remnants of support seemed to be crumbling like the typical Falcons offensive line.
"I've been shedding tears all day, trying to explain this to my 7-year-old son," said Gerald Rose, whose New Order human rights group staged a pro-Vick rally three weeks ago outside the Georgia Dome. "I was let down. I was disappointed. I was hurt."
Rose's New Order had been joined by more venerable black organizations here, such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the local NAACP office, which also had cautioned several weeks ago against a rush to judgment of Vick.
The Vick saga has been a racially divisive issue in a city that usually manages to gloss over its racial divisions. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll after Vick's indictment in July found that about 55 percent of whites believed the Falcons should release Vick. Only 27 percent of blacks responded that way.
The polarization also has played out on local radio airwaves. Vick gave his one post-indictment interview to a popular black-oriented station, thanking "all the people that are praying for Mike Vick and are in my corner right now."
A classic rock station, on the other hand, has been selling faux Vick jerseys that say "Inmate 7" on the front and "Federal Penal League" on the back.
On the "Two Live Stews," a popular drive-time sports-talk show with black co-hosts and many black callers, Vick had plenty of defenders (although also some detractors) . . . until Monday afternoon.
"I feel sad for Arthur Blank, for [safety] Lawyer Milloy, for [offensive lineman] Wayne Gandy, for the Falcons fans, for the Falcons tailgaters," co-host Ryan Stewart told listeners. "I don't feel that bad for Mike Vick. He did it to himself."
Some people here, though, still were sticking with Vick, even as most were sticking it to him. In a reader forum on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Web site, one post maintained, "This is about race no matter how we put it. White folks can shoot ducks all day, but when you fight pit bull against pit bull it is a crime."
Gerald Rose insisted, "I still feel race was involved, and I think he didn't have any choice." But the activist no longer was defending the quarterback. Instead, he was left wondering about him. "How a man could put himself in that situation?" he asked.
How, indeed, wondered many Falcons fans, black and white alike. They had become increasingly resigned to the end of Michael Vick in Atlanta and the start of the team's Joey Harrington era, as the drumbeat of bad news out of Virginia steadily grew louder. But the final piece of bad news Monday afternoon still was a bitter pill to swallow.
"Remember, if you will, where you were when the Falcons drafted Michael Vick," Dave the Falconer wrote on his fan blog, The Falcoholic. "Were you watching the draft on the grainy TV at the bar? Did you read about it the next morning in the paper? Do you remember if you were overjoyed with the news?"
Vick turned out to be a tease, the blogger continued, displaying both brilliant moments and glaring flaws. But Vick always was exciting, and Dave the Falconer wrote that he always held out hope that "one more year, he's going to get it."
Now, with that hope finally dashed, he wrote, "I'm pissed off because I'm a Falcons fan who once again has to deal with a team that's being dismissed before the season even starts."
Falcons fans have plenty of experience with coping with disaster and living in hope. In a booth at the ESPN Zone in Atlanta, IT analyst Frank Ellenberger bravely ticked off the positives about this year's edition: "The defense is solid. Harrington's a more accurate passer than Vick. We just need to get Michael Jenkins and some other receivers going. I haven't given up on the team or anything like that."
To Atlanta fans who also are parents, however, the Vick debacle represents more than just another reversal of sports fortune. It is one more tough thing to explain to their kids. There was a time when it seemed like one of every three kids in this city was wearing a Vick jersey. His No. 7 once was No. 2 in NFL player jersey sales nationally. Now, Vick jerseys are as scarce on the street as the Falcons' prospects in the NFL.
At another ESPN Zone booth, Kevin and Mindy Helms enjoyed a plate of chicken wings with their young sons -- but not the Vick news on the TV monitors.
"He had all this influence over the kids and the young adults who looked up to him, thinking he was someone important," Mindy Helms said.
Added her husband: "I love sports. I won't turn my back on sports. But you get your kids into sports and playing sports to teach them good habits, then you see something like this happen."
John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine, and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."
14hBy Ian O'Connor