Let's get this out of the way: I love dogs. I have a schnauzer I call Kirk, named after James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise. And like most Americans, I detest dogfighting. I never want to see animals suffer, period. But I don't like to see black men suffer either.
The Michael Vick case has become an open referendum for men—especially black men—to look deep within their inner circles and ask hard questions about friendship. This question can't be asked when the authorities have arrested, investigated or otherwise detained you. Too late. A friend is not the guy who will keep quiet when the police are demanding answers. A real friend is the guy who has the courage—and the love—to make sure that you don't get in trouble in the first place. The minute Vick was drafted, the Madison Avenue dollars started rolling in to push products for Nike and others. But money changes friendships. Money can make men grimy.
Notorious said it best: "mo' money, mo' problems.” Today's twentysomething athletes and entertainers can earn staggering amounts of dough if they play the game right. But one of the first real assessments any newly minted millionaire must make is how many of the fellas from around the way can still be down. These stars should think long and hard about who makes the cut. True, there is economic opportunity in keeping it real. Just before Kobe's sex scandal, he lost tens of millions in endorsement dollars while LeBron James cashed in; LeBron, opined the marketing execs, had more "street cred.” This was a watershed moment for the black athlete. Madison Avenue was placing a dollar value on that elusive commodity and made "keeping it real”—on their terms—lucrative.
Edgerrin James' gold grill, Ben Wallace's Afro, A.I.'s cornrows and Chad Johnson's end-zone dances have all given these guys an edge over the competition. The image worked for Vick, too—an otherworldly player who redefined the potential of what a quarterback could be but was still down with the brothers. The game has other trappings: nice cars, women, MTV Cribs episodes and, of course, the entourage. But this ain't HBO.
Here is the reality: Vick's boys are three guys who, during any other course of American life, would have little standing and even less credibility. That is, until they became pliable and willing witnesses in the federal Vise-Grip. It's a federal prosecutor's job to seek justice, not to calm the roiling waters of anger that flow through America because a young black man from Newport News could rise to such athletic and economic heights.
Vick made very poor choices—choices he will have to pay for long after the term "dogfighting” has left the American vernacular. No one can defend his judgment. No racial conspiracy theory can be applied to explain this awful turn of events. But Vick's newest journey will have challenges that are substantially more difficult than eluding a pass rush or reading cornerbacks. His apology to America, the NFL, his teammates, coaches and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank was received as genuine and heartfelt…even by some of his detractors. His true desire to improve as a man and not just as a football player was the correct direction and a demonstrated change of attitude. But his battle is still uphill, and his is a cautionary tale.
The company you keep defines who you are, and if you remain with shady people, you're inviting an inevitably horrible aftermath. In all of this, there is an important lesson for all men: "Keeping it real” means choosing your friends as if your life depended on it. Because, as Michael Vick has learned, it does.

This column appears in the November 2007 issue, on newsstands now!