In the 18 years Jeff Schultz has been covering sports for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, no athlete has taken hold of the city the way Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick did.
So when Vick was indicted for his alleged role in a dog fighting operation last month, the city watched its hero - and perhaps its chances at having a decent football team -- crumble. Schultz spoke to PRWeek about whether Vick can rehab his image, and how common dog-fighting might be among pro-athletes.
PRWeek: What has been the public reaction to the Michael Vick story?
Jeff Schultz: You have to start with what Michael Vick was when he first got here. And he was - without question - the most electrifying athlete this city has ever seen. From the day they drafted him that's all people were talking about. He basically became their franchise centerpiece.
But he was always a polarizing figure from the standpoint of; there were some people who never thought he was a very good quarterback. But he never had a bad image per se. That started to change last season. The Falcons were en route to missing the play-offs for the second straight year, and there was the incident where Vick gave the finger to fans. I think in the eyes of some fans he became a little more of an "it's all about me" kind of athlete. But he still had a very loyal, very large fan base. And then obviously things fell apart this off-season, starting with the still very suspicious water bottle incident at the Miami airport [where Vick was suspected of marijuana possession].
PRWeek: But the dog-fighting incident pretty much trumped all others?
Schultz: It certainly has from a legal standpoint. He's had a lot of issues in the past but this is the first time his name has really been on something in the court of law. But the thing is, I think he's wondering - what's the big deal? I think he's among a lot of people out there who don't have a problem with dog-fighting, and don't see that it's that big of a deal. That's one of the baffling things in this.
PRWeek: Is there a sense of outrage? This is a nation of dog lovers.
Schultz: I think this has the potential to be one of the great underreported stories of our generation. I think we're going to find out very soon that quite a few athletes are into this. I'm not saying there are gambling or dog-fighting operations that are being funded by NFL stars or pro-sports stars in general. I'm just saying that a lot of guys think there is nothing wrong with this. I think they view it they way the Spanish view bullfights in Spain. You and I think they're from Neptune, they think, ‘what's the big deal?'
PRWeek: Are you working on a story that would possibly expose this?
Schultz: I personally am not, but if I fell into it or got someone to talk about it I would. The problem with trying to write something like this is a lot of people will only talk to you off-the-record or on background. I think to do a really good piece, it would take a long time because it's a tough world to crack. If the indictment is true, this went on for five or six years at a home owned by a star NFL player and nobody knew anything about it? That tells you how quiet and underground this sort of society is.
PRWeek: Any chance that Michael Vick is going to save face?
Schultz: No. Let's say the best case scenario for Michael Vick is that he's exonerated. There are still people who won't believe it and will believe that he skated. To actually think that he knew nothing about what was going on at the house, you would have to be delusional.
There's no question in my mind that he's done with the Falcons, and obviously in terms of his career it depends on if it's guilt or innocence. If he's signed by another NFL team they are going to have to be very, very careful because all the pickets we're seeing now, we'll see then. Any team that wants to sign him is going to be fighting a PR battle.
PRWeek: Do you think Michael Vick is a bad guy?
Schultz: I don't think he's a "bad person." I think he's a dumb person, I think he's an immature person. I think he honestly, honestly thinks dog-fighting is not that big of a deal.
PRWeek: Has the public's appetite for scandal has increased?
Schultz: There's no question. It's important for people who are real journalists, and for real media outlets to step back and say "is this really a story?" Sports writers get accused all the time of writing everything about everybody's personal life. Trust me when I tell you, I don't write 90% of what I know.
The problem today is someone with a camera phone will take a picture and slap it on YouTube, and the next thing you know you're chasing some story that you don't want to have to chase. Or you have to write the follow-up story, and now you look bad for writing about a guy's personal life. I don't like it and I try to avoid it as much as possible. Fortunately since I write columns now, I can. If I were a beat writer, I'd go crazy.
PRWeek: Does sports have an image problem?
Schultz: A lot of the problems these guys are getting into are societal problems. The problems aren't exclusive to sports, but that's what we're going to hear about them the most.
PRWeek: What is it like dealing with the athlete's PR people?
Schultz: It's become a more corporate scene than it used to be, and it filters down to the public relations side. The more corporate PR people would get very upset if I found out about something or wrote about it before they put out a press release, whereas the sports PR people understood.
Today it's very difficult to get alone time with athletes. You used to be able to sit with guys and just chat about things. You don't get alone time anymore. Some of this [is] maybe because they're busy and may not want alone time with you. But a lot of the time it's because there are PR guys who sit with you during interviews. They want to know everything that you're working on. They don't want to be blindsided by anything. I'm sure that was always the case to a degree, but they really take steps now to prevent being blindsided from anything.
I've definitely had my battles with the Falcon's PR guy during the Michael Vick coverage, but I think on the whole that we have a pretty good relationship. He said to me the other day, "I like you, I just don't like what you write" - I can accept that.
Name: Jeff Schultz
Outlet: Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Title: Sports Columnist
Preferred Method of Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Web site: ajc.com