The Michael Vick dogfighting debacle hasn't just destroyed the reputation of the once-promising quarterback—it's also stained the Atlanta Falcons, the NFL, and any athlete who attempts to defend the indefensible. Really, I can think of only a single entity that's enhanced its reputation thanks to the dogfighting mess: ProFootballTalk.com. The shoestring football blog, founded and maintained almost entirely by a West Virginia lawyer named Mike Florio, has been around since 2001. In the last year, however, it's gone from relatively obscure to indispensable. The site's Rumor Mill, a tasty mix of insider whispers, reasoned speculation, and compelling outrage, has become the first stop for obsessive fans and league insiders who can't live without up-to-the-second NFL news.
The Vick imbroglio is the perfect story for Pro Football Talk, combining an oft-troubled target, complicated legal matters, and a scandal the mainstream media was slow to comprehend. While ESPN has done a solid job covering the case of late, the Worldwide Leader was slow to catch on at the outset. From beginning to end, PFT's reporting on Vick has been the finest, most thorough coverage online or off. (You can read everything that Pro Football Talk has written about Vick here). It has also been snarky, freewheeling, and salacious—writing that's characteristic of a site that revels in reporting what mainstream media outlets cannot, or will not, touch.
Florio immediately sensed disaster when the story first broke in late April:
Most of the "real" media is chasing this latest story with the same zeal that was displayed after Vick was sued for giving a former girlfriend herpes and after a water bottle with a hidden compartment that smelled not of water was found in his possession in a Miami airport. But there are indications that this one could be (key words: "could be") a doozy.
Vick immediately claimed that he never visited the property where investigators had discovered evidence of a dogfighting ring. That didn't get past Florio's bullshit detector:
So if Vick is telling the truth, his family members have—without his knowledge—converted Vick's pride-and-joy breeding operation into an exercise in cruelty. … Please.
The "I don't know nothing" defense won't fly here, in our view. Even if there is no direct evidence of Vick's knowledge or involvement in dog fighting, plenty of men and women have been convicted of crimes via the introduction of circumstantial evidence and the application of basic common sense.
As Jackie Chiles might say, "You get me one dog lover on that jury, and Mike is going away for a long, long time."
(Seinfeld is a big influence on the site, as evidenced by this.)
By the beginning of May, Florio was addressing skeptics who criticized him for relentlessly flogging a story the rest of the media had ignored:
First, there continue to be new developments, which call into question Vick's apparent "I don't know nothing" defense. Second, we're talking about the possibility that one of the biggest stars in the NFL has been financing and operating a side business that is premised upon the gruesome mutilation and death of animals for amusement. Third, dog fighting isn't just a spectator sport for the sick and twisted; it's a conduit for gambling.
The case finally started to unnerve the sports nation in late May. Sports Illustrated ran a disturbing story about the goings-on at Moonlight Road. ESPN aired graphic footage of dogfights. As the big boys started to spotlight the story, PFT stayed ahead, breaking down indictment possibilities as well as what path the league and team would take to distance themselves from the debacle. Florio also correctly identified entourage member Quanis Phillips as someone likely to flip on Vick, given his criminal record.