"My guess is that there's no one in football today who's put more people in jail than I have," Smith told FanHouse in a phone interview.
This offers Smith a perspective on the criminal justice system that came in handy last summer, when the union and the NFL were discussing the reinstatement of Vick following his release from prison. Those discussions represent the best example since Smith took over the NFLPA at the start of the current collective bargaining negotiations of the union and the league working together on a major issue. And the reason for that is that both sides had the same focus -- to turn Vick's saga into a success story.
In case you haven't been paying attention to the NFL this year, it worked.
"What I'm interested in is people who want to change, to be a success story and to take a bad incident and turn it into a positive," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said during a fan forum before the Packers-Patriots game Sunday night in New England. "I saw an opportunity for a young man to change his life, but only if he conducted himself the right way, which he has. What I'm interested in is whether Michael Vick is representing the NFL in a positive way, and I think he's doing that."
Vick was in jail for his role in perpetrating a dogfighting ring. His crimes were senseless and heinous, and there's a segment of the population that will never be able to see its way clear to forgiving him. There are and always will be people who think Vick didn't and doesn't deserve a second chance to play in the NFL, that the accolades and attention he's getting during the incredible surprise season he's having as the Eagles' quarterback are shameful and unwarranted.
But if you take a broader perspective, Vick represents just about the perfect example of what the criminal justice system is supposed to achieve. An extreme, outsized, overhyped example, to be sure, but an example nonetheless. The ideal goal of the criminal justice system isn't merely to punish crime, but to rehabilitate.
"I grew up in D.C.," Smith said. "Everybody comes back. Sometimes people get caught up looking at this issue of crime and punishment from the outside and think the guy is shunned by his community. But in communities like D.C., Detroit, places like that, everybody comes back. I don't know of a family in D.C. who hasn't had a relative go to jail. But everybody comes back."
The key is what happens when they do. In Vick's case, it might have been easy for the NFL not to let him back in, or to punish him more harshly than it did. But the league decided that the best-case scenario wasn't a league without Vick, but rather a league with Vick as a happy, productive, solid citizen -- an improved teammate, an anti-dogfighting spokesman off the field, a man who'd learned his lessons and applied them.
"You hope you never lose focus on the fact -- and I used to make t his point to young prosecutors when I was training them -- that everything you do touches an individual," Smith said. "There are people in my former profession who like to wrap themselves up in 'You do the crime, you have to do the time,' and the idea that 'We have to make society safe.' And all of those things are true. But at times, people tend to hide behind the macro side of things and lose focus on the individual. The individual who did the crime. The individual who got hurt. The community that was affected. It's important to keep all of that in mind."
There's no doubting that much of Vick's second chance was the result of his obviously considerable talent. Were he not the outrageously gifted athlete that he is -- a potential difference-maker on the football field -- the Eagles and every other team likely would have stayed away. Most teams refused to consider signing him upon his release, so concerned were they about public relations or other baggage that would have come along. But the way it's worked out is starting to turn this situation into a feel-good story -- even President Obama recently called Eagles president Jeffrey Lurie to commend the team for taking a chance on Vick.
"This may strike some as being odd because I was in charge of Michael Vick's prosecution in 2007, but I too am rooting for him," Chuck Rosenberg, the prosecutor on Vick's dogfighting case, wrote in a recent letter to Sports Illustrated. "I have seen hundreds of men and women go to prison. Many, the greedy and the reckless alike, serve their time and come out again with a second chance at life, as is their right. Vick has a better shot than most, and I honestly hope he makes it."
To equate Vick's case with that of thousands of other criminal justice cases that get no attention or don't have anything resembling similar results would be overly simplistic. He's not Cutty from "The Wire" -- a drug dealer who got caught, did his time and got spit back out on the street only to see the light and start a boxing gym for kids in West Baltimore. There are stories like that everywhere, and this is not meant to glorify this one simply because the man plays football.
What Vick is, as so many other pro athletes are, is an avatar -- an overly stylized example of what can be if the criminal justice system works the way it's supposed to work and gets what it sets out to get. There's no way we can prevent everybody from doing terrible things and committing crimes. But when people inevitably do, there are a couple of different ways it can go from there.
"There are people who think, if you commit a crime, you should never be welcomed back to your community," Smith said. "But everybody comes back. So, do you want a guy coming back who has a stable job, is doing something he enjoys and can provide for his family? Or do you want a guy who can't find a job, is shunned by his community, is miserable and can't provide for his family? That's your choice, but I'll tell you what. That second guy? He commits another crime."