WASHINGTON (Reuters) - NFL quarterback Michael Vick watched the violent cockfight -- a variation of the illegal animal fighting that led to his arrest, jail time, and fall from football fame -- with his hands folded in his lap.
Vick, two U.S. representatives and national Humane Society president and CEO Wayne Pacelle grimly viewed the footage of a child watching two cocks tear at each other in a House Judiciary Committee room on Tuesday.
The Philadelphia Eagles player was there to endorse an anti-animal fighting bill inspired, in part, by his own high-profile conviction in 2007 for running a kennel of fighting dogs.
“In prison I told myself I want to be part of the solution, not the problem,” Vick said. “These laws are not to punish people, but prevent people from getting involved.”
The “Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act of 2011” would strengthen penalties for those who finance animal fighting and close gaps in the law to cover those who attend or bring children to illegal cockfights and dogfights.
The provisions on bringing children could prevent them from going down a path Vick says he took.
H.R.2492, introduced July 11 by Ohio Democrat Rep. Betty Sutton and Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Tom Marino, is the latest in a series of bills tightening laws against animal fighting in the aftermath of Vick’s conviction in 2007.
In 2008, Congress made possession and training of fighting animals a felony.
The latest bill would legislate misdemeanor penalties of fines and up to one year in prison for being a knowing spectator and felony penalties of heavier fines and up to three years in prison for making a minor attend a fight.
“Today we take another step in ending the horrible practice of animal fighting,” Sutton said. “Not only as Democrats and Republicans, but as pet owners.”
Democratic Representative Jim Moran of Virginia referenced his own football background in commending Vick’s support.
“On the field, your leader is the quarterback,” said Moran. “We now have a leader. This is a story of redemption.”
Moran chairs the 85-member Congressional Animal Protection Caucus.
After police raided Vick’s property in Virginia in connection with an illegal dog-fighting ring in 2007, the NFL suspended Vick, once its highest-paid player.
He pleaded guilty to federal dog fighting charges and served 19 months in prison until 2009, when he returned to the NFL, joining the Philadelphia Eagles.
Vick was named NFL “Comeback Player of the Year” in 2011. On July 1 Nike Inc re-signed him after terminating its contract in 2007. “We support the positive changes he has made to better himself off the field,” the company said.
The Humane Society initially expressed reservations about working with Vick, according to Society chief Pacelle.
“I had a lot of soul searching to do before talking to Mike,” said Pacelle.
Vick says he witnessed animal fighting growing up.
“That child could be doing so much more with his life,” he said of watching the cockfight footage.
Organized animal fighting is a federal crime and illegal in all 50 states, according to the Human Society. In 49 states it is also illegal to be a knowing spectator at an animal fight, but in only 28 states is watching a felony.
Asked how long he expected to be involved in the issue, Vick said: “Until we have a positive impact going for kids all around the world and we can put an end to it all.”
Editing by Jerry Norton