If Michael Vick wants a jolt of optimism as he ponders his image-rehab, he needs to marinate on Kobe Bryant's five-year ascent from national pariah to, once again, one of the most popular athletes in the world—Bryant is the true wearer of the bestselling (domestic and international) NBA jersey.
Not too long ago, though, Kobe was making this public apology: "Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did." Booed for most of that season (2004-05), Kobe was before that perhaps the most beloved athlete in his sport. On September 1, 2004, as jury selection was underway, a Colorado judge announced that the charges of rape brought against him by a 20-year-old woman were being dismissed. If Bryant had been convicted he could have received a life sentence. The case was raged about by feminists, by sports fans, by almost everyone.
But now Kobe and his Los Angeles Lakers are champions, and Kobe is again king of the block. That's the path Vick—easily the most popular NFL athlete in his heyday—would like to follow. Huge problem, though: All the women's organizations in the world apparently can't muster up the deafening outrage that flows out of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), and other animal right organizations each time Vick (who pleaded guilty to felony dog-fighting charges, served 19 months at Leavenworth, paid almost 1 million in fines, and is doing public service with the Humane Society) tries to repair his life. As a result, some people and organizations are overly cautious about aligning themselves with the All-Pro quarterback, worried about the kind of public relations quagmire an affiliation might inspire.
You see this at work in this week's delicate dance between the Vick camp and Nike. Wednesday, during a panel discussion at the Sports Sponsorship Symposium, Michael Principe (the managing director of BEST, the agency that represents Vick) said: "[Vick] actually just became a Nike client. He has a new deal with Nike that we're all very pleased about." Later that day, Vick's agent gave what can be described as tacit confirmation when he said that both parties agreed not to release terms of the deal. It seemed like another rehab milestone for Vick. It's how things are measured in the world of sport. Nike had terminated his contract in 2007 in response to Vick's legal troubles. But. Not so fast.
On Thursday, Nike responded by saying they had no "contractual relationship" with Vick, releasing a statement that the company had "agreed to supply product to Michael Vick as we do a number of athletes who are not under contract with Nike." Walking back, spin-control; call it what you want. It's clear Nike is still not prepared to be seen as one of Vick's allies. Ah, we just give him some shoes, that's all." Whatever, man. I'd like to think Vick has a realistic, mature outlook about the arduous journey ahead of him when it comes to this image-rehabilitation business. Surely, he didn't think that he'd be released from prison and, within a year, be back on the cover of Madden NFL '10. The road back to mass-acceptance and, if he's fortunate, stardom will be one of persistent contrition, community service—and a lot of touchdowns. But he can make it happen. Near-complete image-rehabilitation is a very feasible option. Just look at Kobe.
Vincent Thomas is a columnist and feature writer for SLAM Magazine. He is also a weekly columnist for NBA.com and a contributing commentator for ESPN. Follow him on Twitter at @vincecathomas.