WASHINGTON — A standout season has done plenty to calm the controversy surrounding quarterback Michael Vick. But President Barack Obama’s praise of the Philadelphia Eagles for giving the convicted dogfighter a second chance has brought new energy to an old firestorm.
"This is a nation of football lovers," said Lisa Lange, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who added that Obama is underestimating the negative reaction his comments will provoke. "It is also a nation of dog lovers."
Vick, whose signing by the National Football League team in August 2009 sparked major protests from animal lovers across the U.S., came up in a phone call Obama made recently to Eagles owner
Jeffrey Lurie, in which the president lauded the team’s ambitious plans to power its stadium with alternative energy sources.
But while discussing Lurie’s November announcement to add hundreds of wind turbines and solar panels to Lincoln Financial Field, Obama also commended Lurie for giving Vick a "second chance," according to Peter King of NBC and Sports Illustrated.
A White House statement on Tuesday cast Obama’s comments as consistent with the president’s view that "individuals who have paid for their crimes should have an opportunity to contribute to society again."
Bill Smith, the founder of Main Line Animal Rescue in the Philadelphia area, bristled at Obama’s characterization that the Eagles signing of the disgraced quarterback was motivated by wanting to give a convicted felon a second chance.
"If he couldn’t throw a football, he wouldn’t have had a second chance," said Smith, who organized a campaign last season to collect food for animal shelters every time Vick was sacked on the field. "This isn’t about giving anyone a second chance, it’s about who can make the Eagles organization more money."
Once the NFL’s highest-paid player, Vick has played the past two seasons under a court-approved bankruptcy agreement brought by his legal woes. He is having the best season of his career, is a certainty to make the Pro Bowl and has led the Eagles to a playoff berth and the NFC East division title.
And while he also has spent the past 17 months doing volunteer work for the Humane Society and various Philadelphia animal rights groups, critics feel the story of redemption being portrayed in the City of Brotherly Love is more about Vick’s play than his efforts to rehabilitate himself.
"If the president truly believed in second chances, he would have adopted a dog from a shelter," Smith said.
The White House would not confirm when the president spoke with Lurie, but the Eagles announced their alternative energy plans for the stadium on Nov. 18. In a statement, White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton acknowledged that Obama and Lurie discussed "other issues" beyond the green initiatives.
"He of course condemns the crimes that Michael Vick was convicted of," Burton said.
In August 2007, Vick pleaded guilty for his role in running a dogfighting operation in a case that included graphic descriptions of dogs being hanged and tortured to death. He served 19 months in prison and was suspended by the NFL.
Upon his release in May 2009, Vick was mentored by former NFL head coach Tony Dungy, who ultimately testified to Vick’s changed ways. The Eagles signed Vick to a one-year contract, then exercised an option for this season.
Vick took over as the team’s starting quarterback early this season, and his popularity with fans has climbed along with his return to NFL stardom.
Sales of Vick’s jersey didn’t rank in the league’s top 100 before the season started, but he’s currently in the top 10, according to Matt Powell at SportsOneSource, which tracks sales of official NFL gear.
When controversy erupted after the Eagles signed Vick in 2009, Pittsburgh-based Dick’s Sporting Goods announced it would not carry his jersey until it had time to gauge the reaction of Eagles fans.
The company’s website now lists Vick as one of its top-selling jerseys.
As part of his probation, Vick has volunteered with the Humane Society and given speeches to kids about the evils of animal abuse. The Eagles also have donated money to animal shelters in the Philadelphia area.
The efforts have brought Vick a reprieve from some animal rights groups. "As long as (Vick) is focusing on playing football and not abusing animals, we will focus our attention on those who are being cruel to animals," said Lange, the PETA spokeswoman.
But his detractors have not forgotten the viciousness of his crimes. Vick riled activists earlier this month when he told NBC News that he "would love to get another dog in the future. I think it would be a big step for me in the rehabilitation process."
Vick is not allowed to own a dog while he is on probation, and PETA wants the restriction to be extended when he is up for review in 2012. In the same way convicted pedophiles are not allowed to be alone with children, PETA’s board believes convicted animal abusers should be denied unsupervised access to pets.
"Children and animals are completely defenseless to an abuser," Lange said.
(Bennett reported from Washington and Memoli reported from Honolulu.)