Sunday, August 19, 2007

Vick Is Trapped in His Circle of Friends

Published: August 19, 2007

The crooked circle Michael Vick drew around himself has tripped and squeezed him.

The first to fail Vick was Davon Boddie, a cousin and personal chef. His marijuana possession charge in April led police to a white house with black buildings behind it on Moonlight Road in Surry County, Va.

The first to flip on Vick was Tony Taylor, a fast friend from Newport News, Va., with an arrest record for drug trafficking and a traffic record for reckless driving. He pleaded guilty last month in the macabre dogfighting case that has consumed the N.F.L.

The latest to betray Vick is Quanis L. Phillips, a friend since middle school. Along with Purnell A. Peace, Phillips, who once served jail time on a drug charge, accepted a plea deal Friday and implicated Vick as the owner and operator of a dogfighting ring. Vick was Phillips’s sole breadwinner. “At certain times,” a court summary of facts stated, “Phillips used a large portion of his money for living expenses.”

Vick employed friends and housed pals. As several athletes have told me over the years, it’s better to set up friends as personal employees than give them, as one said, a “roll of hundreds” every day.

“There is a feeling that being in business makes the relationship even tighter because now they can say, we have another thing that keeps us together,” said Jonathan F. Katz, a Manhattan sports psychologist and founding partner of High Performance Associates, who consults with amateur and professional athletes. “But it’s potentially very dangerous.”

Group dynamics can collapse under pressure. Vick has been abandoned, left to contemplate a plea deal that could imprison him and ruin his N.F.L. career. He is stunned, those in his camp say. Snitching is a street sin, isn’t it?

“That’s all make-believe,” said Cris Carter, a former star receiver who addresses players at the N.F.L.’s seminars about the dangers of dubious associations. “That’s too many TV shows. In the end, it’s about self-preservation.”

And yet the crew, as Vick once called them, was bound together by survival.

“We all stuck together before I was Mike Vick, before the fame and stardom, before the money,” Vick told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2005. “There’s not one new guy in my circle. Everybody I have around me is out for my best interests.”

What a fool, right? But even a logical response — how could Vick risk millions in salary on what court documents say were $5,000 hits here or there for pals amid a ghoulish underworld? — has to include a complicated ethos.

“I just think there are some parents in the African-American culture who have preached a philosophy of you can’t trust white America,” Carter said. “The league is still run by Caucasian males. What’s engrained is mistrust. So guys hold tight to friends who always had their back.”

This is an observation by Carter, not an excuse, because he tells players that stereotyping will lead them nowhere, that dark associations will find light in a see-all society, and that, first and foremost, “They have to grow up.”

Arrested development is a creature of the star system. Vick flunked adult accountability in a superstar culture that doesn’t demand it. Repercussions are for second-stringers. With the Falcons, Vick always carried an explanation or apology or denial for everything, like the night friends were picked up for drug trafficking in his truck, or the false-bottomed bottle that was confiscated by security at an airport or the obscene gesture he made to fans.

The Falcons’ owner, Arthur Blank, was as much a sucker for Vick’s talent as he was for his quarterback’s disarming charm.

A solution for the N.F.L.’s entourage culture — one that has derailed Tank Johnson and Pacman Jones and even played a role in January’s shooting death of the Broncos’ Darrent Williams — is contradictory on its surface.

Can a hard line by teams be intertwined with a more open atmosphere?

There has to be more dialogue, as in real discussion about race relations and trust. And yet owners need to risk alienating stars — even losing games — to stop their serial enablement of entitlement.

By the time Commissioner Roger Goodell slips into his Judge Judy robe, it’s too late.

This doesn’t mean athletes have to cut out everyone. Relationships can be vital in a supportive role — with parameters of accountability. Years ago, when his workplace was Madison Square Garden, Marcus Camby housed a childhood friend, Tamia Murray, who was a street hustler and at the root of an agent scandal that disgraced Camby and UMass.

“Tamia is a guy who will always be in my corner,” Camby said at the time. “And I’ll always be in his corner.”

Camby employed Murray as his driver, but they rarely cruised. They hunkered down in a gated home. By going nowhere, they never found trouble when Camby was a Knick.

Sometimes, the best circle around a player is a moat.

E-mail: selenasports


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