Michael Vick gets out of prison this week, and so far only one thing is certain: He won't have a dog to kick around when he gets home.

The federal judge who put him behind bars made sure of that at Vick's sentencing when he ordered him never to have a dog again. It seemed an unusual provision, but the judge has a little white bichon frise and apparently couldn't go home and look his dog in the eye if he didn't do something to protect others like him.

Even that wasn't enough to satisfy some people. Nothing will ever be enough for them.

Not the $928,000 Vick offered up to house and feed the dogs who survived his brutal dogfighting ring. Not the fortune he lost when everything came crashing down and there was no one left to pick up the pieces.

Not the 18 months he served in a federal prison, or the years he lost during the prime of his athletic career.

That may be because they've seen the pictures of maimed and mangled dogs. They've heard the stories about the creative ways Vick and his buddies at Bad Newz Kennels disposed of dogs who weren't up for a fight.

They may have even seen a federal report quoting a confidential witness as saying Vick and the others would occasionally toss a family pet in with the vicious pit bulls because they thought it was funny to see it chewed apart by the other dogs.

Let the people who still walk around in No. 7 jerseys with Vick's name on top chew on that for a while.

They're the ones who think Vick was railroaded for doing little more than having a hobby, done in by overzealous prosecutors who had little knowledge of the dogfighting culture and wanted little more than to take down a prominent black athlete.

They're the ones who want him back in the NFL this fall, tossing passes and breaking off big runs for the Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders or any of a handful of teams not afraid to take on a player in trouble if they have a chance of making the playoffs with him.

And they will be the ones leading the cheers when commissioner Roger Goodell does the inevitable and reinstates Vick's right to play in the league.

The pro-Vick side and those who can't bear the thought of ever seeing him in a uniform again couldn't be any more apart, which will surely make NFL owners think twice before giving Vick another chance. Indeed, right now a team would have to be desperate for a quarterback to risk the ire of animal lovers everywhere by signing him.

That's not to say Goodell shouldn't lift Vick's suspension at some point. We live in a country where people have done great things with second chances, and Vick will eventually redeem himself enough to deserve his.

Just not right away.

It's too soon. The wounds are too raw. Most people aren't ready yet to forgive, much less forget.

That will change, even though there are those who will never let it go. Unless he's caught stringing up another dog, Vick will eventually be reinstated to the NFL.

I can't see it happening this season because his crimes were simply too cruel. But I can live with Vick returning in 2010, and I think a lot of reasonable people would agree with that.

In between, though, he's got some work to do. There's a whole lot of image repair to be done.

It begins shortly after his release from prison, with Vick reporting daily to a $10-an-hour construction job. Expect to hear that he keeps his head down, works hard, and wins the respect of his fellow workers.

From there, it gets a bit more difficult. Vick will have to act contrite, say all the right things every time he opens his mouth in public, and convince people his sordid past is really behind him. If he's surrounded by smart people, they'll have him speak to youth groups and schools, where he'll tell kids not to make the same mistakes he did.

Eventually there will be a tearful television appearance, perhaps with Oprah or Larry King. He'll ask for forgiveness, and it will be bestowed upon him.

A year ago I couldn't imagine Vick ever playing in the NFL again. The public hatred was simply too intense, and enough time hadn't passed to begin the healing process.

Now it has. The surviving dogs are living the good life, and Vick will soon have a chance to show everyone that he really has changed.

At some point it will become time to move on. Vick will have been punished enough.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.