WHEN BEING THE FIRST IS BEING THE WORST

In sports, it’s good to be original. The first to dunk. The first to throw a knuckleball. The only time you don’t want to be original is when it comes to bad behavior.

Michael Vick is finding this out. Using drugs? Sexual assault? DUI? Waving a gun? As pathetic as it seems, those offenses no longer shock in the privileged world of professional sports.

But dogfighting? Betting on it? Hanging the weak dogs? Drowning them in buckets? We have not seen that before. Vick, in being accused of such crimes, has invented his own category. Not good. He is out there on his own more than he ever was as a quarterback scrambling from defensive linemen.

And the government now has him by the knees. All that is left is how hard the judge knocks him over. Vick will plead guilty to heinous charges – despite once claiming a trial would clear his name.

In these ways, Vick is an original.

And he is done.

A future without the NFL

Oh, he may come back to football somewhere, at some point. But it will never be for the Atlanta Falcons, and it may never be for the NFL. Vick is already 27. The crimes he will plead guilty to can carry up to five years in prison. Even if it’s 18 months, that could be two seasons, and that’s a long time to be away from football, a long time for fast legs to get older and slower. Vick already was being labeled more promise than delivery. He is now a public relations nightmare for any future employer.

Add to that the fact that Vick may face more charges from assorted states. And the claims that he bankrolled the whole Bad Newz Kennels operation, making him more than the man who pitted dog against dog in vicious combat, but the guy who underwrote it, gave it a base of operations and bet on it – and you have enough for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to ban Vick for life.

Not to mention that he lied to Goodell’s face. But this apparently was part of Vick’s routine, the sadly familiar belief that he is Superman and the rest of the world is there to cater.

“It’s unfortunate my name has to keep coming up,” Vick said of these charges to TV cameras a few months back. He said it straight-faced. As late as two weeks ago, Vick’s lawyer was talking about proving his innocence.

Innocence is gone. Guilt is the new currency, and Vick is making deals with it, trying to diminish a professional sack that could plow him off the field

No praise deserved for the NFL

Is there hypocrisy in this case? Of course. The NFL has granted re-entry to players who have been in gunfights, beaten their wives, killed people through drunken driving – offenses that should be every bit as reprehensible as dogfighting.

The NFL also may be the biggest inspiration for illegal sports gambling in the country. To see Goodell or other NFL brass hold their noses when gambling is mentioned is to see portraits in comedy. The league winks at, nods at and even encourages betting (why do you think we have point spreads and injury reports?) as long as it can duck a straight line of blame.

So it should not be a surprise that athletes gamble, too. Where Vick’s case veers off the tracks is the blood – the blood of innocent animals. Because of that, this case can make its own rules, because of that, it is unlikely to line up along the usual racial lines, because nobody wants to defend this practice.

When he came out of college, when he eluded NFL defenders, when he was the star of video games and the inspiration to thousands of sandlot kids wearing his number, Michael Vick was embraced as an original. And he’s going down hard for the same reason – even if he’s the last to realize it.

In a recent ESPN report, the quarterback is seen walking from a camera, saying, “Everywhere I go, all around the world, people still love Michael Vick.”

Don’t bet on it.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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