Sentence complete, NFL should let Vick play

I applaud the hard-line stances Roger Goodell has taken with misbehaving players since becoming the commissioner of the NFL. As quickly as fame and fortune can be gained by being a pro athlete, players who act like thugs and criminals need to understand it can all be taken away just as quickly.

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No one should know that better than Michael Vick, which is why Goodell should approve his immediate reinstatement to the NFL.

Vick yesterday completed his sentence for federal dog fighting charges, making him a free man on probation as far as the government is concerned. But until Goodell renders his own verdict, Vick remains a man shackled by an uncertain future in the NFL.

The No. 1 overall draft choice by the Falcons in 2001 and once the highest paid player in football, Vick is expected to meet with Goodell sometime soon to learn when he will be allowed to play quarterback again. Perhaps more importantly, Vick wants to know whether he needs to look elsewhere to earn a living in 2009.

The feds might be done with Vick, but in many ways he is still in jail — NFL jail. He is currently suspended indefinitely without pay, a ruling Goodell made in August, 2007, after Vick admitted to participating and funding a dog fighting ring. He was later sentenced to 23 months in prison and served 18 months at a federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., before transferring to home confinement last May.

Serving jail time and paying whatever fines are imposed has been the American standard for repaying a debt to society. Vick has completed all of that now. Except for the probation, the judicial proceedings are complete.

Legally, Vick owes the public nothing more, though one last apology when he finally speaks would be nice. Then it’s time to move on with his life. Goodell should allow him to do that.

Extending his suspension for four games, eight games or all of the 2009 season, isn’t warranted nor is it necessary. Vick deserves a second chance just like many other athletes, politicians, actors and even preachers have gotten.

The hideousness of his crime can’t be minimized. What he did was reprehensible and there’s no debate here whether his punishment was excessive. Vick broke the law, initially lied about his involvement, and, as Goodell said in April, “has paid a very significant price for that.” He had to give back $20 million of a $37 million signing bonus, he declared bankruptcy, he lost his freedom, he lost endorsements, he lost his status and he lost his job. What more does Vick owe?

Goodell said last April Vick must “prove to myself and the general public,” that he is remorseful for his mistreatment and murdering of dogs from 2001 to 2007. If any man were ever remorseful, it should be Vick. He isn’t returning to a hero’s welcome. He’ll be starting from zero.

To animal lovers, Vick will always be a villain, the public face for animal cruelty. Wherever he plays, protesters are sure to be there initially. But Goodell can’t worry about it.

Some team will sign Vick. He’s just 29, he’ll come cheap and despite his shortcomings as a pocket-passer, he was one of the most exciting players at a position where quality veteran talent is hard to find.

Sure, Vick might not ever become all that he could have been. But he should be given the chance.