Michael Vick’s many defenders just don’t get it. They talk about due process and innocent until proven guilty and think that they apply beyond Vick’s right to a fair trial.

The same mistake is often made when it comes to free speech. Some thought Don Imus was untouchable because of the First Amendment. But, as we learned, that doesn’t protect him or anyone else from facing the consequences of the public backlash that followed. Those consequences were measured in dollars anc cents. The NFL ordered Vick to sit it out for awhile because it could see the same consequences on the horizon.

Let’s not kid ourselves. As troubling as Roger Goodell might have found the federal government’s indictment against Vick, he’s got a brand, the NFL shield, to protect.

That shield would get tarnished if a bunch of protesters were demonstrating outside Falcons’ training camp every single day. It would be smudged if groups such as PETA pressured advertisers into boycotting the Falcons or the NFL as a whole. And that’s before even considering the backlash from the fans, who seem more outraged by these allegations than any Pacman Jones has faced.

Once Vick is tried, a paid leave of absence may seem lenient. If Vick’s winning percentage in football was as good as the government’s in these kind of cases, he’d make Tom Brady look like Archie Manning. As ugly as some of the allegations in the indictment are, the details that could come out at the trial may be even more gut-wrenching. Getting black-listed from the league may be the least of Vick’s worries by the time this all plays out.

The quarterback’s defenders should be worried less about whether he’s getting fair treatment fromt he league and more about why someone with so much given to him exhibits such destructive behavior. Vick was on top of the world only two years ago. He’d led the Falcons to the conference championship game. He’d been on the cover of Madden. He was the prototype of the quarterback of the future, not Brady or Peyton Manning. After Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant and Barry Bonds, he was the most talked about athlete in America.

He’s surpassed Tiger and Kobe now, and will probably eclipse Bonds once the hubbub surrounding No. 756 subsides. He’s already surpassed Pacman Jones and Tank Johnson as the most notorious example of the thug culture that has gone on for too long in the NFL.

Someone who has squandered the opportunities that Michael Vick has squandered and has done it with the blood of innoncent animals on his hands isn’t entitled to due process from the public. He’s entitled to all the shame and scorn we can muster.

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