RICHMOND, Va. — Sports enthusiasts can overlook an athlete’s missteps, so long as they don’t cross one line: Don’t mess with Fido.
In a nation where dog owners number in the millions, hurting one of the furry creatures tugs even the toughest tailgater’s heart strings.
It’s a lesson Atlanta Falcons star Michael Vick is learning the hard way, as he faces the ire of animal rights activists and fans shocked by allegations he sponsored a brutal dogfighting ring authorities say executed underperforming animals.
Vick and three co-defendants will appear in a Richmond federal courtroom Thursday on charges of competitive dogfighting, training pit bulls for fighting and conducting the enterprise across state lines. Officials allege the ring operated from a Surry County home Vick owned.
The case pits fans’ devotion to the quarterback against their love of man’s best friend. For some, there’s no competition.
‘‘It’s an animal, that’s the bottom line,’’ said David Clary, a Richmond football fan whose cocker spaniel, Peppy, scampered near his feet Sunday. ‘‘Nobody wants to see an animal get hurt.’’
The chilling details alleged in an 18-page federal indictment trouble Clary and wife Melissa. But for now he remains a fan of the former Virginia Tech standout.
‘‘You might be,’’ Melissa Clary said, ‘‘but I’m not.’’
Vick’s charges come as authorities crack down on dogfighting rings, which range from a few guys on a street corner to international networks, said Wayne Pacelle, president of The Humane Society of the United States.
The group successfully lobbied federal lawmakers to make dogfighting a felony.
‘‘We’ve worked now to have 48 of 50 (states) and the federal government impose felony level penalties for dogfighting,’’ Pacelle said. ‘‘We have raised awareness.’’
If convicted of both felony charges, Vick and the others face up to six years in prison and fines.
A New Jersey lawmaker also wants the state attorney general there to investigate allegations pit bulls from the state were used in dog fights involving the kennel allegedly sponsored by Vick.
But even if he’s innocent, Vick could face a tough reaction from some fans, who have threatened to boycott Falcons games. Monday, animal rights advocates protested outside the team’s Georgia headquarters.
Athlete’s missteps rarely evoke such passionate reactions. What gives?
‘‘Dogs, for most people, are like kids,’’ said Donna Bliss, an assistant professor in social work at the University of Georgia, where Uga the dog is a beloved mascot. ‘‘It creates inside them a visceral reaction of utter repugnance that anyone would torture, mutilate (and) slaughter dogs.’’
Bliss said many people feel removed from certain crimes but just about everyone owns a dog.
‘‘People probably think of their puppies, or their little dog that lies by the fireplace,’’ Bliss said. ‘‘That crosses lines for so many people.’’
It’s an emotional reality Vick’s attorneys will want to consider, especially if they have to choose a jury, said Richmond defense attorney Bill Dinkin. ‘‘You’re looking for someone who is going to look at the law,’’ he said. ‘‘You don’t want someone who’s gonna get swept away in the emotion of it.’’
Chuck Ruffino knows that could be tough. He’s part of the Falcons Fanatics, a Georgia-based fan group, and even he acknowledges the charges are tough to stomach. But he thinks fans will forgive.
‘‘If we have a really good season,’’ Ruffino said, ‘‘they’ll forget about it.’’