Animal-rights activists say Vick case 'tip of the iceberg'

By noon on Wednesday, John Goodwin had a bad case of cell-phone ear and a hundred things to do. Four months ago, he couldn't buy publicity in the Humane Society of the United States' struggle to stop dogfighting.

Now Michael Vick has done something Qyntel Woods, Nate Newton and LeShon Johnson couldn't -- put a marquee face on a cause that has suddenly jolted public consciousness.

"There is a definite subculture of dogfighting within professional sports," said Goodwin, the deputy manager of the Animal Cruelty Campaign for HSUS. "I think you've just seen the tip of the iceberg. One thing I hope that a lot of these guys realize is that their NFL careers or their NBA careers or their baseball careers are far more important to them than going to dogfights on a Friday night.

"Any professional athlete who would continue to be involved with this after seeing what Michael Vick has gone through would have to be crazy," he said.

That iceberg, tip and all, slammed into the NFL offices late Tuesday afternoon, in the form of an 18-page indictment detailing an alleged electrocution of a dog and numerous other sordid accounts of animal cruelty involving Vick.

When Vick's house on Moonlight Road in rural Surry County, Va., was raided in April, it led to a rise in dogfighting arrests, Goodwin said.

The latest news had Humane Society officials scrambling to appear everywhere from CNN to Fox News. By late in the day, a Web page encouraging animal enthusiasts to contact the NFL crashed under the crush of hits.

Ultimately, Vick's indictment could change the perception of dogfighting and its connection to some professional athletes.

When Woods was busted for fighting his pit bull Hollywood in 2004, his Portland Trail Blazers teammates initially defended him, and the story was a short blip on the national scene.

When Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis was asked about dogfighting this spring, he said: "It can't be too bad of a crime."

Portis later conceded that his comments were insensitive, but Goodwin said it "shows the mentality that some people have."

"Even guys like LaDainian Tomlinson, who's opposed to dogfighting, when he was a young man he went to dogfights," Goodwin said. "It's out there.

"I hope that really what this does is send a message that deters people from being involved in this in the first place. I hope that the people involved are investigated and caught and sentenced," he said.

Newton and Johnson are former NFL players with ties to dogfighting, but neither carries the star power of Vick, the $130 million Atlanta Falcons quarterback once considered the new face of the NFL.

By late Wednesday, animal-rights activists were working to ensure that Vick's face doesn't surface near a football field anytime soon. The Humane Society and PETA called for the NFL to suspend Vick immediately.

Dan Shannon, assistant director of campaigns for PETA, said that as of late Wednesday, the group had no plans to protest the Falcons or NFL headquarters, "but I certainly wouldn't rule it out."

"We have to see how this all plays out," he said. "We have to give the Falcons and NFL a little time."

Tuesday's news apparently didn't surprise anyone at PETA. Its headquarters are in Norfolk, Va., about a half-hour from Vick's old house. For several years, Shannon said PETA had received anonymous tips about Vick's dogfighting activity. He said the group reported them to the authorities, but for years, Vick and dogfighting stayed in the shadows.

That changed Tuesday.

"One surprise to me, in a good way, is the reaction from sports fans," Shannon said. "They're horrified. They've been reading through this 18-page indictment, about dogs being shot in the head and electrocuted and drowned. The Average Joe sports guy is disgusted by this behavior, and that's been encouraging. They have a hard time looking up to this guy as a hero."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.