RALEIGH — Thousands had protested the scheduled appearance of football celebrity Michael Vick, who was convicted of running a dog-fighting ring and complicity in the killing of dogs, but it was ultimately the weather that kept Vick out of Raleigh, according to his would-be hosts.
Vick had been scheduled to appear at an event hosted by the Greater Raleigh Sports Council and the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, until the impending winter storm forced the groups to postpone it until Feb. 27.
“We had hoped that our special guest interviewee, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, would be available on the 27th but we have been advised that he can’t be in Raleigh on that date due to a previously scheduled engagement,” the chamber said in a written release.
The choice of Vick to headline the Evening of Champions event drew a backlash online and locally. The criticism focused on Vick’s role in the dog-fighting ring, for which he was sentenced in 2007 to 23 months in prison.
The Evening of Champions is the sports council’s annual event to highlight the community’s top sports moments of the year and honor the area’s top athletes, teams, coaches and organizations for their achievements. Vick’s story is a “cautionary tale,” said Rick French, head of a communications firm representing the athlete.
According to some, though, the event’s billing didn’t seem to fit the speaker, who admitted in 2007 that he agreed to the killing of six to eight underperforming dogs, and to funding Bad Newz Kennels and associated gambling. The dogs were killed by methods including drowning and hanging, according to court files quoted in The New York Times.
“Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting,” said Megan Henderson, who has decided not to renew her communication firm’s membership in the chamber because of Vick’s selection.
“I think this situation, and the fact that he was convicted of promoting, funding and facilitating a blood sport – it’s a lot to digest – and I don’t believe that’s the moral character of a champion,” said Henderson, owner of Looking Glass Communications.
The chamber said that it did not plan the event as an honor for Vick, who partnered with The Humane Society of the United States after his imprisonment to speak out against dog-fighting.
“We’re not celebrating Mr. Vick. He’s here to tell a story, an interesting story, about the excesses of sports and celebrity and what it takes to become a better person,” chamber President Harvey Schmitt said in an earlier interview. “Sometimes, it’s good to hear from the dark side of celebrity.”
Word of Vick’s appearance began to circulate widely about two weeks ago, spreading through social media and boosted by news coverage, including stories posted on nationally read websites. An informal protest group formed along the way, according to one of its organizers, Holly Nielsen of Clayton.
Within days, a Facebook page for the group was receiving more than 16,000 visitors per day, Nielsen said. And in the run-up to the event, a local nonprofit called The Positive Pit Bull posted an online petition calling on the chamber to pull Vick from its event. The petition listed about 75,000 signatures from all over the country, although it is impossible to verify that each was from an actual person.
A spokeswoman for the chamber, Vernessa Roberts, said the online controversy had nothing to do with the rescheduling. When representatives of The Positive Pit Bull delivered the petition Monday morning, the chamber replied with a letter stating its respectful disagreement and plans to continue with the event, according to The Positive Pit Bull.
The chamber never considered dropping Vick, Roberts said. It is unclear whether the chamber has or would have paid Vick for his appearance; Roberts did not answer an emailed question or follow-up call about the arrangement.
Vick had agreed to speak in Raleigh as a favor to French, the head of French/West/Vaughn, a Raleigh-based public-relations agency, according to French. The sports council’s steering committee asked French to arrange the visit, French wrote.
Had the event happened as scheduled, Nielsen and other organizers hoped to bring hundreds of people to the sidewalks outside the PNC Arena, where the Evening of Champions is held. More than 1,500 people registered for the protest online, and the organizers had a permit for 500 people to protest.
“I’m very glad that Vick’s not going to speak. I’m disappointed that the chamber’s statement is really just, ‘It’s bad weather’ – but I guess you can’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” Nielsen said, stressing that she was speaking only for herself.
Vick was unavailable for the rescheduled event on Feb. 27 because he would be appearing at a charity event in Florida that day.
Since the quarterback’s conviction and his return to football after imprisonment, Vick has mounted something of a campaign for forgiveness, including his work with the Humane Society and his part in a successful effort to strengthen penalties for dog-fight spectators.
At the same time, Vick’s critics have carefully watched the celebrity. Earlier in January, the company QuiBids canceled an endorsement contract with Vick after public backlash, according to the company’s Facebook page.
Henderson, the owner of Looking Glass Communications, said her future judgment of Vick will depend on whether he seems sincere in his mission and how he is presented.
“It’s a tough one, because I would wonder – is this part of his community service, that he has to travel around on a speaking tour?” she said. Vick has completed his legally required community service and is not on a speaking tour, French wrote in an email.
“He chooses to do charitable work because he believes in it,” French wrote.
Nielsen said Vick could be waiting a long time for forgiveness.
“Wounds take a long time to heal,” she said. She will accept Vick’s campaign for animals, she said, “if he keeps up his work, and seems to be doing it in a way that isn’t meant to resurrect his chance for free agency.”
Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC