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Michael Vick due in court July 26 on dogfighting charges

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -The Atlanta Falcons' first training camp under their new coach will begin without Michael Vick.

Vick will be in a federal courtroom on July 26 in Virginia being arraigned on charges he sponsored a gruesome dogfighting operation as first-year coach Bobby Petrino and the Falcons begin preparing for the season.

Vick and three co-defendants will be asked to enter pleas to the felony charges, and a date for the federal trial likely will be set during the arraignment. After that, Vick will probably be free to rejoin the Falcons as he awaits his day in court.

And the league, it seems, is inclined to let him play.

After consulting with the Falcons, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and top league officials agreed Wednesday to let Vick play as the legal process determines the facts.

A person with knowledge of the meeting, who requested anonymity so the case would not be influenced, said the NFL would stick to that position for the foreseeable future, despite its new personal conduct policy.

In April, Goodell suspended Tennessee's Adam "Pacman" Jones for the 2007 season even though Jones had not been convicted of a crime. He did, however, have 10 encounters with police and five arrests since he was drafted in 2005.

In Vick's case, the NFL players' union took the same stance as the league.

"It's unfortunate that Michael Vick is in this position, as these allegations are extremely disturbing and offensive," the union said in a statement. "This case is now in the hands of the judicial system, and we have to allow the legal process to run its course. However, we recognize Michael still has the right to prove his innocence. Hopefully, these allegations are untrue and Michael will be able to continue his NFL career."

Vick and three associates must appear in Richmond July 26 for bond hearings and arraignments on charges contained in a detailed, 18-page indictment handed up Tuesday.

The four are accused of competitive dogfighting, procuring and training pit bulls for fighting, and conducting the enterprise across state lines.

The operation was named "Bad Newz Kennels," according to the indictment, and the dogs were housed, trained and fought at a property owned by Vick in Surry County, Va.

Conviction carries up to six years in prison, fines of $350,000 and restitution.

Among the grisly findings: Losing dogs either died in the pit or were electrocuted, drowned, hanged or shot. The indictment said purses climbed as high as $20,000 for fights.

Those and other allegations of animal abuse have already put Vick squarely in the center of strong and divided reaction.

In Atlanta, where Vick's name dwarfs all others in pro sports, about 46 percent of respondents in an overnight telephone poll conducted by Atlanta-based InsiderAdvantage think the Falcons should release Vick. About the same percentage said the team should keep him until a verdict is returned. About 8 percent of the 859 people polled had no opinion. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Nike, one of Vick's sponsors, said it was reviewing the indictment and would have no other comment.

In a letter to Goodell, Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Vick's corporate sponsors, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and the Rev. Al Sharpton joined with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States in calling for strong stands against animal cruelty.

"Today, we sound a clarion call to all people: Stand up for what is right, and speak out against what is wrong. Dogfighting is unacceptable. Hurting animals for human pleasure or gain is despicable. Cruelty is just plain wrong," the letter said.

Goodell and Blank met individually with Vick in May after the investigation started, telling him to straighten up or risk discipline.

Blank said he "could not have been more stern" in telling Vick that he represents himself, the franchise and the league and needs to do it right.

"They both challenged me to be more accountable in all areas of my life. I know I need to make some changes around me to make sure that the people in my life have my best interest at heart," Vick said at the time. "My goal is to not let my fans, my teammates or my coaches down."

The Falcons signed Vick to a 10-year, $130 million contract in December 2004. He has been paid about $44 million, including $37 million in guaranteed bonuses, and is due to earn a base salary of $6 million this season.

Teams can amortize the salary cap implications of signing bonuses, but if a player is cut, all bonuses paid but not yet factored into the salary cap must be accounted for within two years.

The Falcons face an estimated salary cap hit of about $6 million this year and $15 million in 2008 if they release Vick - devastating hits to any team's budget.

Football Writer Dave Goldberg in New York, Associated Press Writers Greg Bluestein and Harry R. Weber in Atlanta and Charles Odom in Flowery Branch, Ga. contributed to this report.

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