Philadelphia Eagles back-up quarterback Michael Vick is expected to attend the 32nd annual Ed Block Courage Awards dinner Tuesday at Martin's West, sparking an increase in security and a radical change in format regarding autographs for fans.
Vick, who was convicted in 2007 of running a dogfighting ring in which animals were killed, is one of 32 winners to be honored at the affair, which singles out one member of each NFL team for his courage, sportsmanship and inspiration to their communities.
Vick's selection in December by his Philadelphia teammates triggered "hundreds" of angry e-mails to the Ed Block Courage Award Foundation, spokesman Paul Mittermeier said, causing the organization to boost security for the dinner and to overhaul the event. Organizers have scrapped the long-standing tradition of having the athletes mingle with fans and sign autographs. Instead, Mittermeier said, everyone who buys a $175 dinner ticket will receive a glossy 11-by-14 inch poster signed by all of the players.
He wouldn't detail the size of the security force, but said "we've put in place enough [guards] to make sure that our players are safe and that everything runs smoothly."
The Block Award is named for a former team trainer of the Baltimore Colts, who worked for years to help abused children.
Organizers of the event have been criticized by animal rights groups and others for bestowing the honor to Vick. In January, the American Kennel Club chimed in on his selection, stating on its Web site that "it is unconscionable that a man who tortured and abused helpless animals be honored by an organization dedicated to ending abuse." On Wednesday, a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said that his group has no plans to picket the affair.
"We certainly don't feel that the recognition of a convicted dogfighter is appropriate, but it's not something that we plan to protest," said Dan Shannon, director of campaigns for PETA.
In fact, Vick will be accompanied to the event by Michael Markarian, chief operating officer of the Humane Society of the United States -- a group for which the quarterback has done volunteer work in recent months.
Markarian said he was asked to attend the dinner by the Block Foundation, to provide "a commentary" of Vick's activities off the field.
"He has spoken at churches, schools and community centers, from Chicago to Washington, D.C., to at-risk youths, steering them away from dogfighting," Markarian said.
At first, when Vick offered his time in an outreach program, "we were skeptical," Markarian said. "He said that if he is successful in urging kids not to go down his path, that he has the potential to help more animals than he harmed.
"Is he sincere? I don't know what's in a man's heart, only that his actions so far have fulfilled his commitments to us."