SO MICHAEL VICK was there after all.

After all that lying, to the NFL commissioner, to the media, to those football "friends" who vowed to stand by him, it turns out the suspended Falcons quarterback did facilitate and participate in the brutal dogfights on his property, did participate in the execution of the pit bulls that were injured or unwilling.

All that dung about his citizenry, about his victimization and eventual vindication, was washed away via the confessions of three accomplices and the prospect of a trial that was shaping up to be as predetermined as, well, an execution.

So now what? A prison term seems possible, maybe likely. Citing two sources familiar with discussions between prosecutors and Vick's attorneys, a story in the Norfolk-based Virginian-Pilot said the deal would include a recommendation from prosecutors that Vick serve at least a year in prison.

What else? Suspension from the NFL? Expulsion? The first appears a foregone conclusion, especially after the statement released by the NFL late yesterday.

"We totally condemn the conduct outlined in the charges, which is inconsistent with what Michael Vick previously told both our office and the Falcons," the NFL said.

Translation: Mess with us, we're gonna mess with you.

Because the NFL is not the NBA. It's not major league baseball and it's not, well, whatever that fourth major sport out there really is.

More than any other professional team sport, this one sells its product ahead of its stars, and its labor-relations and bonus-driven contracts reflect that. Sure, it would love to see Tom Brady or Peyton Manning in the final game every year, but when it's Ben Roethlisberger against Matt Hasselbeck, the sport hardly suffers.

And if someone else goes on the cover of "Madden 2008" or "2009?"

Well, sales won't decline a bit.

What's hard to decipher, and depressing to contemplate, is whether this whole ugly episode will somehow turn into a racial debate before it's all through - if it hasn't already. Is Vick being persecuted more than his three accomplices because he is a rich African-American star, or because he owned the property and bankrolled the competitors? If the ESPN poll about Barry Bonds that indicated a huge interpretive chasm between white fans and black fans didn't already clue us in, reports about the drastically different levels of outrage over the Vick affair should.

Some of this has little to do with race, though. Dogfighting is underground commerce among all races throughout the nation, and particularly in the South. "Bad thing about dogfighting is finding it and proving it," Karen Tiller, an animal-control officer in Durham, N.C., told the Raleigh News Observer recently. "We know it's going on. We see signs of it every day. But you'd have to turn the corner at just the right time to bust a dogfight."

Animal-cruelty issues are hardly limited to the South, though, or to dog cruelty. "Canned hunting," the practice of hunting and shooting elk and deer raised on farms, is prevalent and legal in such states as New York and Minnesota. Animal-rights activists say such places are havens for inexperienced and inaccurate hunters, some of whom might need as many as five bullets and acres upon acres of a bloody chase to kill their prey.

Is this any more humane than electrocuting and hanging dogs? Probably not. But most citizens do not house elk and deer as pets, so the practice continues.

There is also this: Many people raised on farms see animals in a different light than those whose only contact with them is as pets or pests. My father-in-law, a farmer in his youth, called our pet "Dog" before finally referring to him as "Rusty."

He was 10 by then, or 70 in dog years.

It was huge event in our house.

Not sure if "Dog" noticed, though.

None of this is meant to diminish the unconscionable brutality of those who participate in Vick's bloodsport. But clearly, when a good guy like Ike Reese hopes for his "friend" to escape punishment on a technicality, when former Eagle Dorsey Levens gets on "Daily News Live" yesterday and talks about how "friends stick by you in times of trouble," there is a disconnect there.

And it's a disconnect the league should be careful of.

Right now, Vick is, to all rational people, a liar who admitted his guilt only when pushed into an inescapable corner. Even his friends don't feel badly for him, at least publicly.

But banish him forever, flex every big muscle the NFL carries these days? Well, whether he deserves that or not, that might not be in the NFL's best long-term interests.

Michael Vick will disappear soon enough. Banishing him might keep him around forever.

(See Pete Rose.) *

Send e-mail to

For recent columns, go to