Daily Press – Aug 27, 2007 – Veronica Gorley – Michael Vick’s image-rebuilding campaign starts today.

Once viewed as a rising NFL star with one heck of a running game, Vick, a 27-year-old Newport News native and Atlanta Falcons quarterback, plans to plead guilty to a dogfighting conspiracy charge today in federal court in Richmond.

His reputation has taken a beating. Public relations and marketing experts won’t rule out a comeback for his image, but they agree it’s an uphill battle that’s just beginning.

And it’s hard to imagine that he’ll ever be the man kids could look up to and parents respect, experts said.

“The chances of him gaining back a positive public image will be very small and will take a long time coming,” said Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago-based sports industry marketing firm.

“And he’s going to have to show a great deal of contrition and positive acts.”

Speculation about Vick’s role in a dogfighting ring investigators uncovered in April stopped last week when he announced he would plead guilty to conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities and to sponsor a dog in an animal-fighting venture.

The details of Bad Newz Kennels, based out of Vick’s Surry County property, included forcing dogs to fight each other and killing dogs that weren’t good fighters.

Investigators seized “break sticks” to pry apart the powerful jaws of fighting animals, blood-stained carpeting from a dogfighting pit and “rape stands,” used to restrain female dogs during the breeding process.

Crimes against dogs are hard to swallow for an American public that views the animals as man’s best friend, said Eric Dezenhall, CEO of Dezenhall Resources, a Washington crisis management firm, and author of “Damage Control.”

“Torturing animals gratuitously is nowhere on the grid of our cultural experience,” Dezenhall said.

“It’s not like he was driving down the street and the dog ran out in front of him and he hit it. Dogs are a domestic animal. A lot of people have dogs,” he said.

“It is grotesque on a very personal level. Killing them, torturing them, is unspinnable.”

To gain the public’s respect back, he must say he’s sorry and admit he was wrong, experts said.

“He has to use this great visible platform of pleading guilty to be the start of the rehabilitation of his image,” said Ganis.

“He needs to demonstrate a level of contrition and apology instead of defiance. So far, we’ve seen denial and defiance. That is a horrible way to regain the luster of his reputation. If it’s important to him, what the general public has to say about him, he has to recognize that what he did is wrong, and it can’t be through his lawyers. He has to do it personally.”

To some extent, Vick will always have a loyal following, Ganis said.

“There will always be a small segment of the population who will feel he was put upon because of his background or his race or who do not see as heinous an act as virtually the entire country does,” Ganis said.

To gain back the mainstream endorsement deals he had before, he’ll first have to regain the public’s respect.

Mainstream companies will look for an apology, good civic works such as community service and contributions and “extraordinary” performance on the field, Ganis said.

The NBA’s Kobe Bryant’s comeback is a good model for Vick to follow, Ganis said. Bryant was accused of sexual assault but, unlike Vick, did not face a guilty plea or a suspension from the game.

“He has since stepped back. He’s taken his time. He did a lot of charitable activities,” Ganis said. “He stayed out of the spotlight, to a degree, and his performance on the court has made him among the top three players in the NBA.

“(Vick) has one great asset on his side — and that’s his youth,” Ganis said. “He’s still got enough time left in his career — and in his life — to regain some of his reputation back.”

Working against Vick is his tough guy image, Dezenhall said.

“Michael Vick has never been a cuddly guy,” Dezenhall said. “What would I tell him if he came to me? It’s very easy. It’d take three seconds. ‘Go to jail, come out a changed man.’ ”

Ganis said he’s not sure Vick has come to terms with the fact that what he did was wrong, and that needs to happen for his redemption.

“He may not feel that dogfighting is wrong, that it’s heinous,” Ganis said. “I don’t know if he believes it yet, if he understands it.”

And then again, maybe Vick doesn’t want to be back on the pedestal, said John F. Murray, a clinical and sports psychologist from Palm Beach, Fla.

“He could still be one of the greatest football players of all time and not have to be a hero,” Murray said.

Dezenhall said “the thing about the American public — we will let you up after we knock you down. But we have to see you suffer.

Without the suffering, there is no repentance. And that’s what it comes down to.

“Do I think this will be a complete recovery for him? No way.

But the name of the game is damage control, not damage disappearance.”

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.