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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Atlanta last night, there was a pro-football pre-season game that meant something. Usually pre-season games don't, but the Atlanta Falcons' 24-19 win over the Cincinnati Bengals provided a boost for Atlanta fans after an emotionally draining day. It started with the Falcons' star quarterback Michael Vick pleading guilty to federal dog fighting charges in Virginia, then a flurry of public appearances by Vick and Falcons officials making statements filled with sadness, and remorse, and some anger. In the end, one of the NFL's most famous and marketable athletes faced the prospect of a prison sentence. Vick will find out his punishment at a hearing December 10th.

NPR's sport correspondent Tom Goldman joins us. Hello.

TOM GOLDMAN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So last night was the Falcons' first home game for the pre-season. It was supposed to be a possible measure of the fallout from the Michael Vick case. Can we, in fact, draw anything from fan response?

GOLDMAN: Probably only that the case is very much on people's minds in Atlanta. There were lots of supporters in the Georgia Dome wearing Vick's number seven jersey. There were both supporters and anti-Vick people outside the stadium who were demonstrating. Inside, lots of empty seats, only about half full when the game started and the crowd only got smaller after that. Now, it's hard to say, though, if that was a vote against Vick or if it was just because it was a pre-season game.

Now, on the plus side, Vick's replacement, quarterback Joey Harrington, did pretty well. He threw two touchdown passes and he got a fair amount of cheers. So, in general, Falcons owner Arthur Blank looked pretty happy up in his luxury box.

MONTAGNE: And of course hours before that game was Michael Vick's guilty plea, then his public statement that followed. And we've got a little bit we can hear.

Mr. MICHAEL VICK (Quarterback, Atlanta Falcons): I take full responsibility for my actions. Dog fighting is a terrible thing, and I do reject it. And I offer my deepest apologies to everybody out there in the world who was affected by this whole situation.

MONTAGNE: Tom, tell us about that statement, his first public comment since this case began.

GOLDMAN: He did pretty well. He seemed genuine. He didn't read from a statement, but he spoke, as he put it, from the heart. He was subdued, which is not surprising for a man who just months ago had fame and fortune and then saw it all collapse. He apologized to the NFL commissioner, to Arthur Blank, to Falcons teammates. And he said he was especially sorry about the children who he said looked up to him as a role model.

Now, as we heard, Renee, he talked about dog fighting being a terrible thing. He did not mention anything about his admitted involvement in killing pit bulls that didn't perform well. There was no remorse about that. He also didn't take questions. So the message, while seemingly genuine, was controlled.

MONTAGNE: And as you mentioned, Falcons owner Arthur Blank also spoke to reporters. Here are some of his news conference.

Mr. ARTHUR BLANK (Owner, Atlanta Falcons): So we cannot tell you today that Michael is cut from the team. Cutting him may feel better today emotionally for us and many of our fans, but it's not in the long-term best interests of our franchise.

GOLDMAN: Now, the plan not to cut Vick is, as Arthur Blank implies, for practical reasons. The team general manager confirmed that the Falcons will try to recoup an estimated $22 million signing bonus to Vick not as a spiteful move, but as a way to be able to spend the money on other players. And Vick apparently has to be on the roster for Atlanta to be able to reclaim that money.

So, in general, Blank talked a lot about how his team has to move on from the Vick situation.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman.

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