WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick admitted on Friday he participated in an illegal dogfighting operation and was suspended indefinitely by the National Football League.
Vick, 27, said in a plea agreement expected to result in a 12-to-18-month prison sentence that he financed illegal gambling associated with dogfighting and helped kill underperforming dogs.
The NFL said in a statement that Vick’s suspension, without pay, would take effect immediately.
“Your admitted conduct was not only illegal, but also cruel and reprehensible,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told Vick in a letter quoted on the league Web site. “Your team, the NFL, and NFL fans have all been hurt by your actions.”
Vick had told Goodell in a face-to-face meeting in the spring he had nothing to do with the dogfighting allegations.
The quarterback, a star player who made millions in salary and endorsements, had already been barred from playing in the upcoming season pending resolution of the case. Vick has been heavily criticized in the media and by animal rights groups for involvement in dogfighting.
Nike said it had terminated its contract with Vick following disclosure of the plea details. The sportswear maker had previously suspended the release of a new Michael Vick shoe due to hit stores this month.
Vick admitted he took part in an illegal, interstate dogfighting enterprise known as “Bad Newz Kennels” from 2001 through April 2007.
In documents filed in U.S. District Court in Richmond, Vick said he knew that underperforming dogs were killed from 2002 to 2007, including as many as eight dogs in 2007.
“All of those dogs were killed by various methods, including hanging and drowning,” the documents said. While he did not explicitly admit having killed any of the dogs himself, he did say, “These dogs all died as a result of the collective efforts” of him and his partners.
He said the fights involved gambling although he did not personally place bets. Illegal gambling can end an NFL player’s career, and Goodell has cracked down on players in trouble with the law.
“Vick did not gamble by placing side bets on any of the fights. Vick did not receive any of the proceeds from the purses that were won by “Bad Newz Kennels,’” said the documents, which were signed by Vick, his lawyers and U.S. prosecutors.
The documents said most of the “Bad Newz Kennels” operation and gambling money was provided by Vick.
Goodell told Vick in his letter: “Your plea agreement and the plea agreements of your co-defendants also demonstrate your significant involvement in illegal gambling.”
The commissioner said that even if Vick did not personally place bets, his funding and association with illegal gambling violated the terms of the NFL player contract.
Goodell added he would review Vick’s suspension after the conclusion of legal proceedings against him.
DOGS FOUGHT TO THE DEATH
Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank said in statement he supported the NFL’s decision and called on Vick “to take positive steps to improve his personal life.”
Vick said he bought property in Virginia to serve as the main staging area for housing and training pit bulls that took part in the dogfighting venture.
Dogfighting, in which two dogs bred to fight are placed in a pit to attack each other for spectators’ entertainment and gambling, is illegal in the United States.
Vick faces a maximum of five years in prison, a fine of $250,000 and three years of supervised release. If he cooperates, he will likely be given a shorter prison sentence that many expect to be between 12 and 18 months in prison.
Vick will formally plead guilty in court on Monday. U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson is not bound to accept the deal and will be the one to decide the sentence.
Prosecutors charged that dogs sometimes fought to the death and that some underperforming animals had been shot, drowned, hanged, electrocuted or killed by being slammed to the ground.
A federal grand jury indicted Vick on July 17. He negotiated a plea deal after associates agreed to cooperate with prosecutors under their own deals.
The top pick in the 2001 NFL draft out of Virginia Tech, Vick has made more than $61 million in his six NFL seasons.
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