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Jackie MacMullan

Kraft owner of sympathetic view

FOXBOROUGH -- While much of the nation remains fixated on Michael Vick and the heinous details of his twisted pastime, owners throughout professional sports can't help but have their attention directed elsewhere -- to Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank.

As Vick's life continues to disintegrate before our eyes, contaminating his coaches, teammates, city, and a loyal fan base, the man who has been tainted beyond repair is Blank, who allowed himself to be hypnotized by the glitz, glamour, grin, and grand deception of his celebrated franchise player.

Blank, by most accounts, is a decent man. He cofounded Home Depot, made millions, and established himself as a philanthropic NFL owner with a passion for football. He bought into Vick's charm, graceful deftness, and seemingly bottomless reservoir of potential. Blank gave him a $130 million contract and dutifully backed him through scandals involving secret compartments at airport security, his "Ron Mexico" sexual escapades, and obscene gestures leveled at the home crowd. Blank and his prized quarterback were pals, and you know how that is. Friends always have each other's backs, right?

Sure. Blank's reward for his blind loyalty was to suffer excruciating embarrassment on a national level. How many times in the past week have you seen the clip of Blank gingerly pushing Vick around the field in his wheelchair during his recovery from a broken leg? It's beyond humiliating.

The shrewd entrepreneur with a portfolio in excess of $1.3 billion has been made out to be a fool, like a jilted gigolo who never saw the betrayal coming.

Michael Vick lied to Arthur Blank, the man he professes to love and respect. Not once. Not twice. Repeatedly.

He wasn't truthful about his involvement in the dogfighting ring that was operating out of his property. He wasn't truthful about the "family matters" that required him to leave town and miss team commitments.

Blank is a proud man who is living every owner's worst nightmare. You pay millions and millions of your own money and lay your trust -- your team's future -- with one player, and he makes a mockery of the relationship. Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who has spoken to and traded e-mails with the Falcons owner during this crisis, sympathizes.

"I feel sorry for Arthur," Kraft said yesterday afternoon, "because I know it could happen to any one of us."

He is right. Teams can research players all they want. They can trace their family tree, delve into their upbringing, their schooling, their cultural bent, their likes and dislikes, and their relationships with past teammates, coaches, teachers, girlfriends, wives, mailmen, garbage collectors, baby sitters, therapists, and hair stylists.

The information may be valuable, even raise some red flags, but when the star throws three touchdown passes, wins the big one, then drapes his arm around his owner and hands him the game ball, the athletic adulation often alters the judgment of the most sound businessmen.

Arthur Blank should have known better. The warning signs were there, right in front of him.

"You can see how Arthur could have become enamored with Vick," Kraft said. "He's an engaging young man, a great athlete. It's all part of a learning curve as an owner. I've been there. I've made my mistakes in that regard.

"I don't know how a lot of our players spend their private time. If someone is a really good poker player, they could be living a private life that's very different than what we think. You hope you never get snookered by it."

How well do we know our stars? Who can say for sure? Sportswriters are constantly inundated with the same question regarding Tom Brady, David Ortiz, and Paul Pierce: What are they really like?

My answer is consistent: I have no idea.

There are some athletes I enjoy immediately and others who give me pause. Over time, as I see them react to various situations, both positively and negatively, I develop a more informed opinion. My gut tells me Brady is a guarded, dedicated athlete who rarely shows his true self. Ortiz? A passionate, fun-loving teammate who can be overly sensitive. Pierce? A complex, talented player who has matured greatly in the last three years.

With that said, how can I profess to truly know any of them? I don't follow them home, play golf with them, sit in on their dinner conversations, school conferences, or tag along for a night on the town. I don't spend 24 hours a day with them, which means I don't witness them contending with marital stress, injuries, financial difficulties, or issues with alcohol and drugs.

And neither do the owners of our sports teams.

"It's true," Kraft conceded. "We do as much research as we can, but part of it is just luck. Unfortunately, some time in the future we'll probably be disappointed [by one of our players]. I hope not, but I'm not so arrogant as to believe that it couldn't happen to us."

Red Sox fans found it curious that when Orlando Cabrera became a free agent following the team's World Series championship that Boston didn't immediately re-sign him. While economics (and a fascination with Edgar Renteria) played a role in the decision, multiple team sources said in the aftermath that some off-the-field factors played a role in preventing them from pulling the trigger on Cabrera.

Kraft admits there are players his team has passed on because the background checks did not warrant the dollars required to secure them. Theo Epstein, whom Red Sox owner John Henry entrusts to handle the acquisition of his personnel, acknowledges the same thing.

"Even when you're pretty sure about someone, there's always more you wish you knew," Epstein conceded. "It's important, I think, to distinguish between players who have been in your organization for a long time, including home-grown players who have come up through the minors, and players who have never been with the organization and are acquired either via trade or free agency.

"In our case, we talk to as many teammates as possible. Teammates are generally with you throughout a six-month regular season, and a six-month preseason. They can give you a fairly accurate sense of a person. But, obviously, there's uncertainty in every investment."

Epstein quickly added that the uncertainty of a person's character exists beyond the sports world.

"Look at the BTK serial killer from Wichita [Kan.]," he said. "People worked and lived alongside him for 15 years and never knew."

Kraft has invested the most heavily in Brady and Richard Seymour, and recently signed Adalius Thomas, who signed the biggest free agent contract in Patriots history. Kraft knew little about Thomas before they brought him on board, aside from his team's research.

But, he said, he likes what he's seen from Thomas, both on and off the field. And he's willing to bet Brady is an investment that will never cause him the kind of heartache Arthur Blank is experiencing today.

"I'll put our money on him," Kraft said. "Richard, too."

You wonder if Arthur Blank will ever put his money on anyone ever again.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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