On Monday, we learned that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell really doesn't believe that 23 months of incarceration was punishment enough for Michael Vick. For Vick -- who was conditionally reinstated by the league Monday and might not have a chance at playing in a regular season game until Week 6 -- the question now is, what is he prepared to do in order to resurrect his career?
There shouldn't be a complicated answer to this. Vick can begin to rebuild his reputation by doing one thing: getting back onto a football field as quickly as possible and proving that he still can play.
That's the only way Vick is going to begin to put his federal conviction for running an illegal dogfighting ring behind him. He's not going to do it by talking about all the lessons he learned while in prison. He's also not going to do it by running somebody's scout team this fall in the hopes that an open-minded head coach eventually finds a role for him. The only real bargaining chip Vick has to play here is his ability to showcase the same talent that blew us away in the first place. That is how he'll ultimately find his salvation.
This shouldn't be a surprising revelation, by the way. Recent history has shown us that big-name athletes caught in scandals usually can play their way back into the public's good graces. Baltimore Ravens Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis once went from being caught up in a murder trial to being named NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a Super Bowl MVP. Los Angeles Lakers All-Star guard Kobe Bryant once was accused of allegedly sexually assaulting a woman before charges were dropped during jury selection. Those days now seem like distant memories after Bryant earned his own MVP in 2008 and won a championship without Shaquille O'Neal by his side last month.
Vick, who turned 29 on June 26, still can have some say in his future. You can bet that we'll start to care less about his past problems if he still can dazzle us with the same athleticism that turned him into a three-time Pro Bowl quarterback with the Atlanta Falcons. That's how we relate to our star athletes. As long as they can still perform at high levels, we'll always find a way to ignore past transgressions.
Of course, it's the players who never get the chance to perform -- or are at a point in their careers that they can no longer produce -- who end up struggling. That's why Barry Bonds is still a pariah and Roger Clemens has no chance of saving his reputation. They can't win us over with their skills any longer. So all we're left to do is focus on all the questions swirling around their personal lives.
Vick still has a chance to avoid that fate. First, he needs to find a team willing to sign him and accept all the baggage that comes with his presence. There already have been some teams that have said they will have nothing to do with him, likely because one downside is the potential presence of animal rights activists shadowing Vick's every move. But that doesn't mean Vick should wait for a shot at the NFL if nobody is going to offer him an opportunity.
The newly formed United Football League should be an appealing option for him as well. Even if it means he has to compete against lesser talents, Vick would be able to show us something about his current ability -- and he'd easily have a better chance of being a full-time quarterback in that league. If Vick proved he still could be a playmaker after a few games in the UFL, you could expect NFL teams to be far more willing to pursue him. If he also had a chance to see how protesters reacted to him in that league, he'd also give NFL decision-makers a means for gauging what kind of public-relations fiasco they'd be dealing with by signing him.
There would be no shame in such a move. The most important thing Vick needs at this point is a large corporate entity that is willing to invest in and support him. The UFL reportedly could offer him as much as $1.6 million to play six games this season. A deal like that means Vick could be the face of that league, which starts play on Oct. 8. If his UFL team did not make the playoffs, he could be available to play as early as mid-November.
Vick could benefit from going to some NFL training camp if he gets a shot. He could use that time to regain his feel for the game and to discover where he needs to improve. We're talking about a man who hasn't had any semblance of elite conditioning the past two years. He's going to need some time to remember what it takes to compete on the professional level.
But let's also not kid ourselves here: Vick easily could wind up on a track to nowhere in the NFL. Just ask former star quarterbacks like Aaron Brooks, Daunte Culpepper and Byron Leftwich how easy it is to get overlooked once you're perceived as damaged goods by the NFL (and they've had no legal problems). It's also difficult to imagine that Vick would show much in those two preseason games that Goodell has allowed him to play in. At the very least, Goodell could have given Vick four preseason games to showcase his potential, especially when considering how rusty the player will be at this stage of his comeback.
I could go on and on about how Goodell's decision to partially reinstate Vick was all about public relations. The reality is that Goodell made his decision and now Vick has to make his own critical choices. There are certainly other major factors for Vick to consider here, including finding the money to pay $1 million in fees from his bankruptcy case and another $3.7 million in legal fees. But the best move for Vick is to make his return to the game as simple as possible.
All Vick needs to do is show us that he still has value as a player. That probably won't guarantee him another multimillion-dollar contract and it certainly won't keep the people at PETA from holding him up as their Public Enemy No. 1. What it will do is remind us of why we cared about him so much in the first place. And if Vick can accomplish that, then he really will be on the right path to turning his career around.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.