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.
You can choose to believe it or not, but Florio told me that a number of people in the NFL told him that nothing would have come of the case if PFT didn't push the issue. ("I don't believe that," he cautions.) If nothing else, that sort of rhetoric is a testament to the perceived power of the site within league circles.Florio says that "90 percent of the league reads the site, and the other 10 percent are lying." I've talked to a number of NFL front office types and media people recently, and all of them copped to being regular readers.
Bob Moore, the public relations director for the Kansas City Chiefs, disputes the notion that the site is devoured by NFL execs. "[Chiefs general manager] Carl Peterson doesn't read it, and I have only glanced at it once or twice," he says. "But I can assure you that everyone in Kansas City media circles reads it every day." Moore believes that Pro Football Talk has had a profound affect on conventional media. He gets calls from reporters all the time, he says, following up on rumors floated by PFT. "When I knock it down and ask where it came from, everyone says, That's the buzz." In other words, PFT and other gossipy blogs like Deadspin and the Big Lead have had the same influence on the sports world that the Drudge Report has had on politics. Michael Vick, meet Monica Lewinsky.
Before he launched Pro Football Talk, Florio worked briefly for ESPN.com; he left because he was frustrated by the level of editorial oversight. Florio, who now acts as both writer and editor, is not infallible. The concept of the site allows for a handy loophole. He can report "rumors" of an impending trade or suspension; should it never happen, well, that doesn't mean the rumors weren't out there. After reporting erroneously that Terry Bradshaw had died in a car accident, the site has become a lot more reliable—more like an insider's guide to the NFL than a salacious tabloid.
A better analogy: Pro Football Talk treats the NFL like Spy treated the New York power structure in the 1980s, with the proper blend of scorn for the powerful and fondness for the game. The site also had good timing. Written by a lawyer, it got rolling just as a seemingly endless number of players brushed against the criminal code. Pro Football Talk concentrates much of its energy on cataloguing rap sheets rather than game plans. A calendar keeps track of the number of days since a player was arrested (currently 18), and PFT has crafted a points system to determine the team that's most in trouble with the law. (No, it's not the Bengals—Miami currently tops the "Turd Watch.")
The Rumor Mill is much more than just Law & Order: NFL. Click over right now, and you'll find Florio casting doubt on Jerome Bettis' claim that he faked an injury while with the Steelers, reports on a possible locker room revolt in Philly over the release of popular linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, criticism of a piece on the NFLPA by ESPN.com's Howard Bryant, and, inevitably, fantasy football tips. PFT is weakest when it comes to pure game analysis, but that's not why I click there. Indeed, Florio says the site's best numbers come in the offseason, when players have free time to find trouble.
How has a one-man Web site become the best source for NFL news? There is an inside-the-Beltway feel to most pro football coverage, with the league and the teams ruthlessly controlling the message and the messengers. This has worked to Florio's advantage. Veteran reporters like Peter King and Chris Mortensen have a symbiotic relationship with the NFL and can't afford to jeopardize their positions by publishing stories that will hurt the league. Florio can always return to his day job or just throw up his hands and insist, "I'm just a blogger!" He can also post three paragraphs on any subject in real-time without having to jump through the same hoops as a newspaper columnist or a TV reporter. This isn't merely journalistic jujitsu. It's how more and more fans, if not Carl Peterson, are following sports.