by Lang Whitaker

I own a dog, a frisky 12-pound furball named Starbury. I got her four years ago from the Center for Animal Care and Control, a shelter in New York City where they euthanize unwanted animals. I feed her twice a day, walk her every day and take her to the dog park every weekend.

I’ve sat anxiously in the waiting room at the vet’s office when Starbury mysteriously came up with a limp. I’ve wordlessly plucked her feces off my hardwood floors more times than I can recall. I knew for certain that I loved her one day when she vomited on me and I cared more about her immediate health than I did about being vomited on.

I donate to the humane society, I chat with other dog owners at the dog park, I’ve even voluntarily dog-sat for a couple of friends who were traveling.

My point is, I am a dog lover.

My problem is, I am a Michael Vick fan. Right now, those two things seem to be mutually exclusive.

One night a few weeks ago, my wife asked me if I would sign a petition. It was just hours after federal charges against Mike Vick had been made public, a horrible litany of allegations including dogs being hanged and electrocuted.

The petition Wifey wanted me to sign was somewhere on the vast hinterlands of the internet, a virtual appeal to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asking him to immediately and permanently eject Michael Vick from the National Football League.

“But Vick hasn’t been convicted of anything,” I said. As Jay-Z once noted, I thought this was America, people? Aren’t we all innocent until proven guilty?

While I wholeheartedly believe in that ethos, I will admit that on that night, my defense of Michael Vick was coming from a much more selfish place: If Michael Vick is banned from playing football again, who’s going to start at quarterback for my Atlanta Falcons this season? Joey Harrington? Talk about dogs…

Vick has always had the Falcons and Falcons fans by the throat. As Vick went, so went the Falcons. And Vick seemed to understand that, accepting the trappings of fame perhaps before his won/loss record was worthy of such acclaim. But then, that was all part of Michael Vick. He was Superman in cleats, with the ability to do things the rest of us couldn’t begin to imagine. I will never forget the afternoon of December 1, 2002, as I stood in the kitchen of my mother-in-law’s house in Atlanta and watched Vick scamper 46 yards through the Vikings defense to lead the Falcons to an overtime win. The entire time, just like former Falcons radio guy Jeff Hullinger was doing, I was screaming “Go Mike Vick!” There have probably been more exciting plays in NFL history, but for Falcons fans, it’s hard to think of anything more thrilling than that run.

It’s also hard to think of anything more un-thrilling than the thought of Michael Vick electrocuting a dog. What I keep trying to remind myself as this case has dragged along is thus far Vick has maintained his innocence. I don’t know if he is innocent or not, and it pains me knowing there’s a chance we may never really know the truth. Maybe Vick is lying, maybe the guys charged alongside him are lying. Heck, maybe the government is lying.

Because someone is definitely lying.

On my way home from work the other night I stopped at my local deli. This deli is owned by a Korean family and staffed mainly by a few Mexican guys who always want to talk soccer with me. This night, one of the Korean men, knowing I’m from Atlanta and support all the Atlanta sports teams, asked me, “Hey, isn’t your quarterback in trouble?” I confirmed that he was. “What did he do?”

I explained the charges against Vick, stressing that they were still just allegations.

“Wait a minute,” the man said, “it’s illegal to have dogs fight?”

It is, I told him.

“But don’t people fight chickens against each other?”

This was a valid point. But while cockfighting is also illegal, it is somehow not as despicable as dog fighting — Roy Jones Jr. has long talked about his love for his battling roosters, and “Seinfeld” even did a whole episode about a cockfighting circuit.

Yet dog fighting somehow feels worse. I think it’s because we think of a dog and we think of a pet, an animal we’d love to cuddle up on the couch with or head to the park and play fetch with. As details of the Vick case have trickled out, dog fighting seems to have zoomed up the list to become one of the world’s newest seven deadly sins. As West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd recently said, “I am confident that the hottest places in hell are reserved for the souls of sick and brutal people who hold God’s creatures in such cruel and brutal contempt.”

I wonder if Senator Byrd eats beef or chicken?

Obviously, the food we eat — and yes, I am a world class carnivore — isn’t made to fight each other before we tuck into it, but is it any worse to electrocute a dog than it is to shoot a bolt into a cow’s head? Nobody cares that Brett Favre, the NFL’s golden child, spends his off-season in the wilderness hunting unsuspecting animals?

The public backlash against Vick hasn’t been too shocking, considering how heinous the allegations are. But the volume and ferocity of the response against Vick has been surprising to me. I think it’s not so much that he was supposedly involved in dog fighting, but it’s the egregious cruelty involved in the alleged deaths of Vick’s dogs — the hanging, the electrocution. Perhaps if Vick had procured a license, bought a gun, hid in a tree and then sneaked up and fired a bullet into the brain of an animal that has not historically been domesticated, the public outcry would be different. Or maybe if Vick put a metal hook through the face of Nemo, people wouldn’t be so worked up.

We can argue the morality of hunting versus dog fighting, but right now legality is the only thing that matters. At least where Michael Vick is concerned. The law says you cannot “conspire to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities” or “sponsor a dog in an animal fighting venture.” The government says that Michael Vick did those things.

I hope he didn’t.

It’s not like I thought Michael Vick was perfect. He’s been involved in so many tempests through the years — Ron Mexico, anyone? — that even Vick supporters completely blinded by his shine must have known that Vick is no choir boy. Which was part of Vick’s allure, at least to me. Not every sports fan wants their heroes squeaky clean and clearly defined. Some of us like the guys with the warts and bruises, maybe because we like to believe they’ve had more demons to defeat on the way to greatness.

But I thought Vick was better than these allegations. He might not have been the most accurate QB in the league, and maybe he couldn’t read defenses as well as some other quarterbacks, but damn if he wasn’t fun to watch. For all his glaring deficiencies, Vick had the one thing every fan watches sports for: Potential. With the thunder in his left arm and the lightning in his legs, you were never quite sure exactly what The Michael Vick Experience held next. It might be a flip over a defender for a touchdown or a shake-and-bake in the open field that causes two defenders to collide. Maybe he’ll get frustrated and flip off the home fans or get busted carrying a bottle with a secret compartment through an airport. The negatives may have constantly weighed against the positives, but Vick still had all that potential, and nobody wanted to miss it if or when he finally managed to piece it all together. He appeared to be on a long and winding road, maybe to greatness, maybe to wasted potential.

I have three Michael Vick jerseys in my closet — two Falcons joints and one Virginia Tech throwback. A few years ago, I used to collect jerseys and wear them almost exclusively. These days I’m more into button-ups and sweaters and such, though I still occasionally break out a jersey on the weekends, and even then it’s usually a soccer jersey.

Last Saturday morning I slept late, then got up and got ready to take Starbury out to the dog park a few blocks from my apartment. We go there every weekend, and Starbury gets to sprint around unleashed while I sit in the shade and read the papers and sip on the largest, most caffeinated drink Starbucks makes. This is our ritual. It’s not much, but it’s something I look forward to every week.

Starbury knew what was up and was pumped, and as soon as I snapped her collar on, she started hopping around, scratching my legs, standing at the door and yelping. I was trying to hurry up and get dressed, and since it was a Saturday I reached for the jersey pile and found one of my Mike Vick jerseys on top of the stack. I was still half-asleep, so I grabbed the jersey and started to put it on…and then I thought better of it. Would it be wrong to wear a Vick jersey in public? Technically, no. Morally, most likely. At times I enjoy being a contrarian, but the thought of being savagely beaten by a furious mob of upper Manhattan residents might not be so much fun.

I wore a Ronaldinho jersey instead.

ESPN.com recently published a huge story attempting to explain why “so many black Atlantans see the Michael Vick case a racial conspiracy.” It is an interesting conceit, if a bit short-sighted; I’m sure there are plenty of black and white people, and not only in Atlanta, who feel race is playing a part in this case. For instance, I think race has something to do with the way all of this has played out. Do I think there’s a racial conspiracy? No. But if, say, Favre or Peyton had been accused of something similar, would there have been the same rush to judgment as there was with Vick?

We simply don’t know. This is such a strange case with so many bizarre circumstances. It involves race (because everything in the South involves race), it involves morality, it involves legality, but most of all, it involves duality. Because we are being asked to simultaneously comprehend a series of divergent conditions:

The laws of our country prompt us to assume innocence until someone is proven guilty.

The government has announced that they feel Michael Vick is guilty.

Michael Vick says he is not guilty.

As a dog lover, I completely agree that any person who willfully harms or kills a pet should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

As a human being, if it turns out Michael Vick is guilty, I hope he is punished to the fullest extent of the law.

As a Falcons fan, I hope Michael Vick is innocent.

Perhaps I just don’t have the emotional maturity to deal with all of this, or maybe I’m just wishy-washy. But many people seem to have already made up their minds. To them, not only is Michael Vick guilty, but he is the most vile, horrific person on earth. There is no changing their mind.

To me, this isn’t such a black and white issue, and I mean that literally and figuratively.

I’m trying my best to keep an open mind until more facts come out. If the facts ever come out.

I said earlier that Vick appeared to be on a long and winding road, maybe to greatness, maybe to wasted potential. Either way, the next stop on Vick’s road is a federal courthouse in Virginia; that’s the one thing we know for sure.

You may have noticed that throughout this piece, I referred to Mike Vick’s tenure with the Falcons in the past tense. I’m not rushing to judge him or trying to act as a jury here, but I’m pretty sure no matter how this shakes out, Vick’s time in Atlanta is finished. He may be innocent of making dogs fight each other, but he’s definitely, overwhelmingly guilty of bad judgment, and I get the feeling that Falcons management is just ready to move on.

It’s not that easy for me. For the last six years, Vick has probably been my favorite athlete in pro sports. I don’t cover football and I rarely write about it, so it gave me a chance to just be a fan, to throw any trace of objectivity out the window and be a fan. The Falcons didn’t have much, but they had Mike Vick, and that was usually enough to at least give us a chance.

It’s hard for me to just ignore those last six years; they really happened, after all, and I really had all those feelings and emotional highs and lows thanks to Michael Vick.

He doesn’t know it, but Michael Vick did a lot for me the last six years.

I feel the least I can do is try to give him the benefit of the doubt.

For now, at least.