|Michael Vick has been vocal about the negative impact on the NFL of player arrests. (US Presswire)|
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- It's not just NFL commissioner Roger Goodell who's fed up with player arrests. It's the players themselves, and if you don't believe me you weren't listening to the Giants' Osi Umenyiora last month or Philadelphia's Michael Vick this week.
I was. I sat down with Vick after Friday's walkthrough and sought his perspective on an epidemic of lawbreaking across the league, and I sought it because Vick's perspective is unique: Not only did he break the law; he's a convicted felon who spent 19 months in federal prison for running a dogfighting ring.
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I make no apologies for what Michael Vick did, but I will say this: He was punished, and, since returning to the league, he's been a symbol of redemption -- on and off the field. He is personable, he is accountable and he is responsible, often making speeches to inner-city children on how not to be like Mike ... which is why I wanted to hear what he had to say about the NFL and police blotters.
"It's disheartening," he said, "every time I see a player being arrested, especially when it's for pointless activity and things that easily could have been avoided. We all have to realize and appreciate the position we're in. We are role models, and you never know who's watching you -- and I speak from personal experience because of what I went through and what I feel right now."
What Vick feels right now is frustration and disappointment, so much so that he jumped at the league's invitation to address players at this year's NFL rookie symposium. His message was direct and forceful: Stay out of trouble because life in the NFL is short ... and better to extend your opportunities than screw them up.
Vick should know. He spent nearly two years in prison after the 2006 season and returned only when the Eagles took a flyer on him. Given the opportunity to resurrect his career, Vick has flourished -- becoming a starter, earning a long-term, multi-million contract and restoring a tarnished reputation.
Basically, he has become the spokesman for second chances.
But Vick just turned 32, and knowledge should come with experience. The problem is that some of these guys he's trying to reach are 10 years younger, and young can be dumb -- meaning it can be easy to tune him out. Only Vick has been where they don't want to go, so I suggest players of all ages listen up.
"There's no blueprint on how to live a perfect life," Vick said. "We all have been young once, and those younger guys are just living life. But they have to understand; they have to be cognizant of what people are doing in the NFL office. There are outstanding programs that provide safe havens and opportunities for guys to take precautions -- and I think we need to take heed of that.
"Hopefully, they'll [league officials] continue to crack down on the rules and let the burdens be what they're going to be. If there are punishments imposed then we all have to deal with it, but we all have to be conscious of the position we are in and respect the NFL."
"[Here in Philadelphia] I think we get it as players and as a team. We're not perfect, and we haven't always done everything right, but we know we’re going to have to answer to coach [Andy] Reid at the end of the day -- and a lot of guys don't like going to his office."
Vick's message is similar to one delivered last month by Giants' defensive end Osi Umenyiora after returning from a trip to Nigeria. At the time, Umeyiora said he was alarmed by the number of arrests involving NFL players (he tweeted that it seemed like "HALF the NFL got arrested") and suggested that maybe, just maybe, more guys should start behaving like Tim Tebow.
When I recited the Umenyiora episode to Vick, he nodded and said he understood.
"I've seen more arrests this offseason than I've seen my 11 years since I came into the league" said Vick. "It's just getting gout of hand. I think these young guys are taking things for granted. Probably the strongest message I can send to them is this: If you continue to not obey the law and the integrity of the NFL, your career won't last long and you'll be looking for another job.
"So appreciate what you have and dedicate yourself to your sport and protect your image -- because it can translate into a lot of positive things. If not, it will only become negative."
Makes sense to me. But it's Vick's peers who need to get the message -- now more than ever.