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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- My initial thought for this column was to urge readers to boycott Nike footwear, Coca-Cola's Powerade sports drink, EA Sports video games, Rawlings athletic equipment, Kraft food products, Hasbro toys and AirTran airlines because of their $7 million worth of endorsement deals with disgraced Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick.

As usual, reality got ahead of me. A little research indicated most of the savvy industrial marketers for these companies have already been dropping "The Face of the NFL" as if he were radioactive.

In case you aren't a sports fan or were accidentally locked in your bedroom closet for the last week, the football star is accused by federal prosecutors of surreptitiously fronting a gruesome and illegal seven-state dog-fighting ring out of his remote 15-acre forested estate in rural Virginia (Surry County, population: 6,829 according to the 2000 census), where his $700,000 mansion was found to have bloodstained walls and carpets.

The feds say dog fighting in this supposedly civilized nation has some 40,000 proprietors and participant humans, and that such remote and hidden venues are chosen to avoid public attention, law enforcement scrutiny and legal interest in the dope dealing and high-stakes gambling that invariably accompany such to-the-death matches.

As some of his customers and confederates in this so-called "sport" might term it, Michael Vick is already dead meat. My prediction is that Michael Vick has already played his last NFL game, ever.

Just hours before writing this column, I was on a Jet Blue flight from Boston to Buffalo. On Jet Blue, passengers get to watch just about any TV channel they want. I tuned in CNN's Nancy Grace. She was all over Michael Vick and was the first show host I've noticed who was willing to run actual footage -- supplied by the Humane Society of the United States -- of the "sport's" deadly "contests" between the tough, squat, hapless pit bulls who were "competing."

In one, an incredibly muscled brindle male immediately seized his pure white male opponent by the throat with vice-like jaws and thrashed his head back and forth so savagely the white dog's feet barely touched the walled cement pad upon which the "contest" was taking place. The white dog was game and tried to bite back but could get no purchase, instead snapping his jaws helplessly in the air. Finally, he caught the tip of an ear and tore it off. The "winning" dog didn't appear to notice. Soon, the white pit bull went limp, on its way toward imminent death.

In the second clip, two black female pit bulls were loosed on each other. It was no contest. The dominant dog went for the same throat hold and might as well been fighting a rag doll. The other dog wanted no part of the fight and tried to give up, rolling on its back and spreading its legs. The dominant bitch immediately seized the loser by the lower stomach. Thankfully, CNN did not show the subsequent disemboweling.

Just as well. Had the fight been stopped at that point, according to the Justice Department's indictment of Vick and three associates, the loser would likely have been killed anyway by one of a variety of methods: hanging, strangling, drowning, electrocuting or slamming to the ground with force.

This, according to supporters of the "sport," is to "improve" the breed and get rid of weak and wimpy bloodlines. Michael Vick himself, according to the indictments and supporting law enforcement statements, not only collected and paid off the numerous substantial wagers that accompanied such gore, but sometimes personally presided over execution of the losers, frequently by electrocution made more efficient scientifically by soaking the victim canine in water, thus improving the conductivity of the charge.

History test: What other figure in recent history had this idea of improving a species by murdering the members he thought were weaker?

Gold star for you. It was Adolf Hitler. You can get in a lot of trouble by trying to help along evolution and natural selection.

When I removed my headset, I could hear passengers in nearby seats on my flight moaning and murmuring, a few of them rising quickly to head for the bathroom at the rear of the plane. Their TV screens indicated they were the ones who'd been watching the pit bull footage.

The segment wasn't over. In the interests of "balance," I suppose, the producers put on some mewling dork who'd been a longtime friend of Vick. He immediately made the case that poor Michael shouldn't be blamed because he grew up in a crime-ridden Newport News housing project, his mother drove a school bus to make ends meet, and he often fell asleep to the sound of gunshots.

I never have bought that argument. My father worked in a paper mill. The house I lived in was assessed at $13,000. My mother worked, too. Sure, I wore clothes my older brothers wore. One of my childhood acquaintances -- who'd slept over in my drafty old house and played Monopoly with me -- grew up to be an infamous serial killer. There was a huge, dangerous lumber pile made of unstable timber logs just a few yards from our front door. There were fist fights in my school. One of my friends derailed a boxcar. Another stole a steamroller. Another hung a guy over a bridge railing by his ankles. Some of my best friends ended up in jail. Blah, blah, blah, blah ... ad nauseam.

I seem to have turned out OK, and I've never tried to turn cruelty to animals into a commercial enterprise. In fact, if I see you mistreating one of my animals, I'll beat the living crap out of you, or have someone do it for me. If I had the time and space, I would describe scores of successful, kind, prominent, achieving -- even wealthy -- Americans in all fields of pursuit and of any race or creed who grew up desperately poor and surrounded by criminal idiots but didn't let it influence their drive to become honorable adults. I've worked for some of them. They turned growing up penniless into a positive thing. Don't feed me that baloney.

Besides, Michael Vick is one of the most gifted athletes ever to grace this planet, and to waste that gift upon such a hideous pastime -- or any pursuit based upon cruelty -- is a travesty of human development, no matter what your upbringing or birth circumstances.

And while I'm at it, I might as well deal with this withholding of opinion because "in this country, you're innocent until proven guilty" -- a favorite refuge of the Atlanta Falcons and Nike executives in recent days.

No, you're not. You're guilty if you're guilty and innocent if you're innocent. The original caution about inveighing against such opprobrium was longer and contained the condition "... unless such innocence is pierced" by a preponderance of prosecutorial evidence. Federal prosecutors usually don't indict unless they have a pile of evidence. In this case, they not only have a big load of evidence detailed in an 18-page indictment, but several strong witnesses.

In this case, we've seen much of it on TV -- more than 50 dogs being removed from Vick's estate, the cadavers of others being dug up with backhoes, the numerous sparse kennels and fenced pens strewn across the out-in-the-woods Moonlight Road property.

Besides, in the minds of most Americans, the O.J. Simpson travesty blew that phrase into antiquity. Yes, you have to be proved guilty in a court of law to go to jail or suffer other legal consequences, but if you have enough money, you can sometimes dodge those consequences by hiring clever lawyers. We all know that. Michael Vick, who will be arraigned Thursday, has enough money. He is the highest-paid player in the National Football League, ever. He has a $130 million contract over 10 years and $37 million from a signing bonus. Whomever he hires will have to be good. The feds have already unraveled a criminal enterprise that went on for six years at least, and accuse Vick of "purchasing and developing specifically for the criminal enterprise" the remote retreat and "knowingly sponsoring" an "animal fighting venture" that is illegal under tough new federal law and under the laws of 48 states including Virginia, which is also preparing a separate prosecution.

The dog fight investigation began as a drug bust, in which Vick's 26-year-old cousin, who lived at the rural estate, was arrested on several narcotics charges. Subsequent investigations of the site for more drug evidence uncovered the dog fight stuff. At first, Vick shamelessly tried to pin the blame for the animal cruelty on his cousin and other friends and kin who stayed there.

"I'm never at the house," he told questioners. "I left the house with my family members and my cousin ... they just haven't been doing the right thing. It's unfortunate I have to take the heat behind it."

Uh-huh. That reminds me of the clueless parents of the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre in that Colorado high school a few years back -- parents who blithely ignored the presence of illegal sawed-off shotguns on the dining-room cadenza, who ignored the numerous police calls from neighbors fed up with backyard pipe-bomb explosions from the two teens testing their ordnance, who ignored the voluminous presence of loose gunpowder in a bedroom where one of the killers laboriously tore apart firecrackers he'd insisted on being paid with instead of money at the fireworks factory where he worked summers. Geez, we didn't know anything was amiss. Riiight. More baloney.

Know this. Dog fighting is in no way a sport. Even if the premise was sporting instead of based upon unbelievable cruelty, the proprietors and handlers routinely cheat -- filing their dogs' teeth to serpent-like sharpness, numbing their lips and mouths with nearby cocaine to dull fatigue and pain, and implanting their fur and coats with tiny shards of glass to provoke reactions of withdrawal and disengagement in the opposition.

Know this. Pit bulls are a luckless breed suffering unbelievably bad press. Despite the efforts of Vick and others at trying to "improve" the breed, pit bulls, with rare exceptions, are not born with killer instincts. They generally have to be trained and tortured into it. They are often -- as on Vick's property, according to law enforcement statements -- "baited" with unsuspecting dogs of known gentleness, such as retrievers.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell -- who has forged a new disciplinary code to punish off-field player misconduct -- has a predicament. He says he won't do anything until Vick is convicted, yet he's already suspended other players who've yet to go to trial, most notably Tennessee Titan cornerback Pacman Jones (10 arrests, four interceptions) for his alleged role in a Las Vegas shooting.

The NFL Players Association -- a very strong union that is worried about continued bad publicity for its members -- has pretty much deserted Vick in his desire to continue playing and is putting tremendous pressure on him to take a paid "leave of absence" for a year. The union is afraid Americans are waking up in general to the idea that professional athletes are vastly overpaid and over-pampered. The Falcons executives have pledged support but have removed Vick's visage from its ubiquity on the team Web site.

Nike sees the handwriting on the wall. They haven't severed him as spokesman, but Nike almost immediately withdrew from the market their new AirZoom Vick V sneaker scheduled for introduction this month -- a costly procedure. His days with that huge retailer are numbered. AirTran dropped him earlier this year after he failed to show up for congressional testimony and then cleverly blamed his absence on the airline for which he was paid spokesman.

His worst problem is not only with 73 million American dog-owners, but with the usually adoring American public in general. He's been in much publicized scrapes-without-scars before. Confiscation by airport security of a water bottle with a secret compartment in the bottom? No problem. Vick said it was for hiding jewelry, not dope. Besides, we all know about the current airport hassles. Two days ago, the security people almost lost my watch by insisting I remove it and then stashing it in some other guy's tray.

Gave the Falcons fans the finger last season, and was fined $10,000 and made to give another $10,000 to charity? Yawn. The Falcons devotees probably deserved it. Public accusations by an alleged sex partner that she contracted genital herpes from him because he failed to inform her he had the disease and knew it? The sports public yawned again. How many times does that happen in America each night? This is bigger.

This involves questions of humanity. This involves the very premise that we humans are above animalistic behavior. U.S. senators are taking to the floor to decry dog fighting as "barbaric" and are introducing even tougher laws against it than the one President Bush recently signed.

Some predictions spawned by this public fury: Vick will not play this year. Vick will be permanently banned by the NFL. Vick will lose all his remaining endorsement contracts. Vick will be convicted. Vick will serve time in prison. Dog fighting will continue. There will be more arrests involving more celebrities, within and without sports. The public outcry will be huge. The American public will finally become bored with the coverage. Pit bulls and other breeds will continue to be brutalized.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com July 24 2007