RICHMOND, Va. - Michael Vick, the star quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, agreed yesterday to plead guilty to dogfighting charges in a deal with federal prosecutors that most likely will land him in prison while he is in the prime of his NFL career.
The NFL, which has barred Vick from the Falcons' training camp, said it would not announce its punishment for Vick until he accepted the plea in a hearing next Monday. As part of the deal, Vick agreed to plead guilty to felony charges of conspiring to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities and conspiring to sponsor a dog in an animal-fighting venture.
He faces at least a year in prison. U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson, who announced the plea agreement in a meeting with reporters in his courtroom, will sentence Vick, probably at the end of November.
Vick, 27, finds himself in a rarefied group of athletes, along with Shoeless Joe Jackson and Mike Tyson, whose careers were cut short or interrupted at their peak because of legal problems.
Three of Vick's co-defendants have already pleaded guilty in the case, acknowledging that Vick "almost exclusively funded" the enterprise, Bad Newz Kennels, and the gambling associated with it.
One of the co-defendants, Quanis L. Phillips, said that he, Vick and another co-defendant, Purnell A. Peace, killed about eight dogs in April that did not perform well by hanging or drowning them at a property owned by Vick in Surry, Va.
In a statement released yesterday afternoon, the NFL accused Vick of lying to commissioner Roger Goodell and to the Falcons early in the investigation.
"We are aware of Michael Vick's decision to enter a guilty plea to the federal charges against him and accept responsibility for his conduct," the NFL's statement said.
"We totally condemn the conduct outlined in the charges, which is inconsistent with what Michael Vick previously told both our office and the Falcons. We will conclude our own review under the league's personal conduct policy as soon as possible."
Goodell is expected to review the details of the plea deal when they are released next week, paying special attention to Vick's involvement in gambling, which is prohibited by the league's personal conduct policy. Violating those rules could subject Vick to a lifetime suspension.
The NFL also has instructed the Falcons not to take action against Vick until Goodell makes his decision.
Vick is most likely to be suspended by the NFL indefinitely, with the league waiting to determine the final length of his suspension.
That would keep Vick out of football for at least the 2007 season while he awaits sentencing, but also gives the NFL the option of having Vick serve part of his suspension after his prison term ends. Once the NFL suspends Vick, the Falcons would be free to try to collect a portion of Vick's $37 million signing bonus - which could top $20 million - because he would be in breach of his contract. The Falcons then could release Vick, who signed a 10-year, $130 million contract in 2004.
"We are certainly troubled with the news today concerning Michael Vick's guilty plea to federal charges," the Falcons said in a statement.
A yearlong prison term would probably rule Vick out for the 2007 and '08 seasons. If the NFL decides that Vick should continue to serve his suspension after his incarceration ends, he would probably not be free to return to action until at least 2010, when he would be 30 and still have plenty of playing time left.
The Falcons' owner, Arthur Blank, has made it clear that he feels betrayed by Vick, a strong indication that even if Vick is able to resurrect his career, it would not be in Atlanta.
It was only 6 months ago that Vick, one of league's most popular quarterbacks, was in the midst of adjusting to a new head coach, former Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, who was supposed to hone Vick's athleticism into more consistent on-the-field play.
But, in April, the government raided his property in Surry and found 52 pit bulls, blood-soaked carpeting, and five specially modified treadmills for dogs. On July 17, Vick was indicted along Peace, Phillips and Tony Taylor, another former associate.
Taylor pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors on July 30. Peace and Phillips accepted their plea deals on Friday.
The charges in Vick's indictment carry a maximum possible sentence of 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The plea deal probably calls for prosecutors to recommend a lighter sentence as long as Vick cooperates with the government's investigation.
Vick's lawyers said they hoped Vick would be able to resume his football career.
"Watching Michael Vick go through this, even for a lawyer with my experience on these types of cases, is very painful," Billy Martin, one of his defense lawyers, said in a telephone interview. "We find a young man in a predicament that should never have happened.
"Michael is in the process of trying to heal himself and his family. We understand Judge Hudson has the matter in his hands, and we are hopeful that he will allow him to continue to do the only profession he knows and give him a second chance to come back into the NFL."
Frank Beamer, Vick's head coach at Virginia Tech, said yesterday he was saddened by Vick's predicament.