another article from the UK press:
Dog days in Atlanta for NFL's troubled superstar (UK)
American Football: Dog days in Atlanta for NFL's troubled superstar
American sport has been rocked by the claim that one of its greatest stars enjoys dogfighting. Rupert Cornwell reports
Published: 07 June 2007
Guns, drugs, rape, booze, domestic violence - in terms of lurid, off-field headlines generated by a wayward minority of its lionised and massively paid performers, surely no top-level sport on earth beats America's National Football League. And now to this list of transgressions must be added what is surely the most bizarre of all: dogfighting.
Yes, dogfighting, that gruesome "sport", banned in all 50 US states and a felony crime in 48 of them, in which pit bull terriers and the like, bred and trained for their viciousness, rip each other apart in contests in which one or other of the animals often dies. It is a clandestine, tightly guarded subculture, thriving on gambling money that permits purses of up to $100,000 (£50,180) a match. Now, however, dogfighting faces public scrutiny as never before, thanks to an NFL superstar named Michael Vick.
Vick is the starting quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, one of the very few black men to occupy gridiron's most crucial position. He is one of the NFL's most thrilling players, renowned for his dazzling rushing game and currently in the middle of a 10-year $167m (£84m) contract that makes him the third-highest earner in all of American team sports.
Vick has already managed to contribute his share of the now familiar off-field lurid headlines relating to the NFL, including a a 2005 case of allegedly giving a girlfriend a sexually transmitted disease, and an obscene gesture to Falcons fans after a game last season. That incident earned Vick a $10,000 fine. Now it appears he is a patron of dogfighting as well.
The whole thing began on 25 April this year, when police raided a large, new white house in leafy Smithfield in south-eastern Virginia. The raid was part of a drugs investigation, but attention quickly switched to a group of five black-painted outbuildings tucked away in the woods behind.
There police found some 60 dogs, most of them pit bulls, either in kennels or tethered to stakes buried deep in the ground. The animals were well-fed, but some of them bore scars and wounds. There were other, even more suspicious items, including a "pry bar" used to force open the jaws of a fighting dog, as well as a "rape stand" that holds an aggressive dog in place during mating. The most incriminating discovery of all was an upstairs room, measuring some 16-feet square, its lower walls spattered with blood, and with a dog's tooth lying on a bucket - evidence that organised fights had taken place on the property. The owner of the house, although he did not live there, was Michael Vick.
Thus far no charges have been brought, and Vick himself denies wrongdoing.
Others were acting behind his back, he maintains, among them his cousin Davon Boddie, who was actually living at the house and whose drug arrest led to the original raid. "It's unfortunate I have to take the heat," Vick told reporters when the story broke, "Lesson learnt for me."
But matters may not be so simple. Vick visited the house several times, and reports claim he knew well what was going on, and was himself a big financial backer of dogfighting. Last week the sports network ESPN ran an interview with an unidentified source, who claimed he had personally seen the football star placing a $40,000 bet on one of his own dogs in a fight in 2000 - the year before he became the top overall pick in the annual NFL draft. Nor is it any secret that the eastern Virginia region, stretching up to Washington DC, has long been a centre for dogfighting.
On the other hand, Vick is a registered kennel owner and breeder. Much of the equipment found could thus be perfectly legitimate. And even though investigators found a bloodstained square of carpet, of the size typically used in dogfights to give the animals "traction," no witness to an actual dogfight in the upstairs room at the outhouse has yet come forward. The local prosecutor is also proceeding very cautiously, mindful of an earlier dogfighting case that collapsed because of an illegal search by authorities.
Such considerations have held up a search warrant to dig for fighting dogs buried in the grounds. In the mean time, Vick has sold the house.
What seem irrefutable are the links between dogfighting and elements within the NFL and the National Basketball Association. The most specific such link is Leshon Johnson, a former running back for the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants, convicted and given a five-year suspended sentence in 2005 of belonging to a dogfighting ring. A more general one is the intensely competitive, violence-drenched culture of the NFL. As one unnamed, one-time NFL All-star told Sports Illustrated magazine this week, "[Dog]fighting is a fun thing to some athletes. Everyone wants to have the biggest, baddest dog on the block."
The case could hardly have come at a worse moment for the league. Football may have long supplanted baseball as America's true national pastime. The sport is awash with money, with ambitions to expand into Europe and beyond. But its off-field image problem is increasingly dire. Just a fortnight before the Smithfield raid, Roger Goodell, who took over as NFL commissioner in September 2006, announced a clampdown on such misconduct, which had seen nine members of one team alone (the Cincinnati Bengals) arrested in the space of just 12 months.
To underline his point, Goodell imposed an unprecedented 16-game suspension, the equivalent to an entire regular season, on Adam Jones of the Tennessee Titans after arrests for assault, vandalism and other offences. Only this week the Commissioner barred Tank Johnson of the Chicago Bears for eight games, after Johnson, on parole for gun offences, was lfound with six unregistered firearms at his home. A few days later, his personal bodyguard was shot dead when the pair were at a Chicago nightclub.
The dogfighting connection may be no less damaging. People may not have much sympathy for nightclub heavies. But everyone loves dogs. The Humane Society of the United States, the America equivalent of the RSPCA, has demanded an investigation into the Vick case, calling dogfighting a "barbaric activity ... that fosters violence in our communities. "
Even more ominously Congress, which has recently passed legislation tightening interstate rules against dogfighting, is getting in on the act. A couple of years ago, the House Oversight and Government Reform committee held sensational hearings on steroid use in baseball. Now Tom Lantos, one of the panel's most senior members (and a dog-lover in the habit of bringing his small white terrier to his Capitol Hill office) has demanded that the NFL punish Vick - even before any indictment, let along conviction, has been handed down. Whether he likes it or not, this is one case that Goodell cannot ignore.
. independent. co.uk/general/ article2621491. ece
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