RICHMOND, Va. – More than football, Michael Vick's freedom is the question now.
With three associates prepared to testify that he brutally executed dogs and bankrolled gambling, the NFL star agreed Monday to "accept full responsibility" for his role in a dogfighting ring and plead guilty to federal conspiracy charges.
Worries about playing time will have to wait while Vick faces prison time — from one to five years.
The maximum term is five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, although federal sentencing guidelines likely would call for less. Defense attorneys would not divulge details of the plea agreement or how much time Vick can expect to serve.
However, a government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the terms are not final, told The Associated Press that prosecutors will recommend a sentence of a year to 18 months.
The official said such a sentence would be more than what is usually recommended for first-time offenders, reflecting the government's attempt to show that animal abusers will receive more than a slap on the wrist. U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson is not bound by prosecutors' recommendations or the sentencing guidelines and will have the final say.
Twenty-five days after he declared that he looked forward to clearing his name, Vick said through defense lawyer Billy Martin that he will plead guilty. A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 27.
"Mr. Vick has agreed to enter a plea of guilty to those charges and to accept full responsibility for his actions and the mistakes he has made," Martin said in a statement. "Michael wishes to apologize again to everyone who has been hurt by this matter."
The NFL noted in a statement that the Atlanta Falcons quarterback's admission wasn't in line with what he told commissioner Roger Goodell shortly after being charged.
"We totally condemn the conduct outlined in the charges, which is inconsistent with what Michael Vick previously told both our office and the Falcons," the NFL said.
The league, which barred Vick from training camp, said it has asked the Falcons to withhold further action while the NFL's own investigation wraps up.
The Falcons said they were "certainly troubled" by news of the plea, but would withhold further comment in compliance with Goodell's request.
Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, said in a statement:
"We believe the criminal conduct to which Mr. Vick has pled guilty today cannot be condoned under any circumstances. Speaking personally, as I have previously stated, the practice of dog fighting is offensive and completely unacceptable. I can only hope that Mr. Vick, who is young man, will learn from this awful experience."
In a telephone interview with the AP, Martin said Vick is paying a high price for allowing old friends to influence his behavior, but he emphasized that his client takes full responsibility.
"There were some judgment issues in terms of people he was associating with," Martin said. "He realized this is very serious, and he decided to plead so he can begin the healing process."
The lawyer said salvaging Vick's NFL career was never part of the discussions.
"Football is not the most important thing in Michael Vick's life," Martin said. "He wants to get his life back on track."
Another defense attorney, James D. "Butch" Williams Jr., alluded to the harsh public backlash against Vick since the July 17 indictment detailed the abuse of dogs on Vick's property in Surry County, Va.
"Michael is a father, he's a son, he's a human being — people oftentimes forget that," he said, adding that Vick is "very remorseful."
"Nobody's been rougher on Mike than Mike's been on himself," Williams said.
Animal-rights activists said they hoped the high-profile case would increase public awareness and help bring down other dogfighting rings.
"The only good that can come from this case is that the American people dedicate themselves to the task of rooting out dogfighting in every infected area where it thrives," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.
The plea deal was announced just as a new grand jury began meeting. Prosecutors had said that a superseding indictment was in the works, but Vick's plea most likely means he will not face new charges on top of the original: conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities and conspiracy to sponsor a dog in an animal fighting venture.
Three of Vick's original co-defendants already had pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against him if the case went to trial. Quanis Phillips of Atlanta and Purnell Peace of Virginia Beach signed statements saying Vick participated in executing at least eight underperforming dogs by various means, including drowning and hanging.
Phillips, Peace and Tony Taylor, who pleaded guilty last month, also said Vick provided virtually all of the gambling and operating funds for his "Bad Newz Kennels" operation in rural Virginia, not far from Vick's hometown of Newport News.
The gambling allegations alone could trigger a lifetime ban under the NFL's personal conduct policy.
Vick's Atlanta attorney, Daniel Meachum, told the AP that Vick is taking a chance with his guilty plea as far as his career is concerned because there have been no discussions with the league in recent days.
"There's no promise or even a request of the league to make a promise," Meachum said.
He said the plea deal involves only the federal case and that he didn't know if there had been any discussions about resolving state charges that may still be filed.
The case began April 25 when investigators conducting a drug search at a massive home Vick built in Surry County found 66 dogs, some of them injured, and items typically used in dogfighting. They included a "rape stand" that holds aggressive dogs in place for mating and a "breakstick" used to pry open a dog's mouth.
Vick contended he knew nothing about a dogfighting operation at the home, where one of his cousins lived, and said he rarely visited. The former Virginia Tech star also blamed friends and family members for taking advantage of his generosity and pledged to be more scrupulous.
The July 17 indictment said dogs that lost fights or fared poorly in test fights were sometimes executed by hanging, electrocution or other brutal means. The grisly details fueled public protests against Vick and cost him some of his lucrative endorsement deals.