The first, the very first endorsement deal Michael Vick signed when he returned to football was with a company called Unequal Technologies. They didn't approach him; Vick was still toxic from a prison stint and that whole dog-killing thing. Instead, Vick offered up, unprodded, the best advertisement money can't buy.
Vick had missed three games in 2010 with a rib cartilage injury. Upon his return, the Eagles' equipment manager presented him with a chest protector made by Unequal, essentially a flak jacket containing the material Kevlar, best known for its use in military armor. That afternoon, Vick outdueled Peyton Manning, throwing for 210 yards and running for 74 more against the Colts. At his postgame press conference, he said the protector made him feel "invincible."
Rob Vito, Unequal's CEO, approached Vick with a deal in mind, and the quarterback was more than willing. He "didn't want money," Vito told the Wall Street Journal. "He wanted stock." Vick, still earning his way back into football's good graces, was a discount for Unequal, and they quickly got a deal done—one in which Vick, as a shareholder, has a vested interest in the success of the company. After the season ended, Unequal announced a two-year endorsement deal with Vick. Besides the rib coverage, Vick said he was now wearing shoulder and thigh protectors made by the company. He said in a statement:
"The Unequal technology is a part of my game now and I won't play without my Unequal. Unequal's protective power gives me a whole new level of confidence in my game. It makes me feel invincible."
Again, "invincible." Michael Vick has now injured his chest twice since signing his deal with unequal. A set of broken ribs from a hit in a game against the Cardinals in 2011, and bruised ribs sustained during the Eagles' second preseason game earlier this month. This is, decidedly, not the best publicity for Unequal.
Vito and Vick have been out in front of any criticism, claiming on both occasions, for varying reasons, that Vick wasn't wearing the company's flak jacket. After Vick returned from his injury last season—again, three games—Unequal rushed out a press release assuring the public that the quarterback had been hurt because he had been wearing a competitor's protector.
Facing unexpected hot temperatures in last month's game against the Arizona Cardinals, Vick opted to forgo the UNEQUAL winter weight body armor and instead wore a competitors' protective gear that resulted in Vick breaking two ribs and missing the last three games.
"I wore a different one, not made by UNEQUAL," he admitted. "I switched it up because the UNEQUAL gear was a winter weight and it was hot that day. Bottom line: I didn't use UNEQUAL and got hurt. I now regret it."
It's not clear whether Vick's deal with Unequal requires him to wear the company's gear. According to Crossing Broad, Vito says it does. Another account states merely that Vick must "wear Unequal's apparel at six public appearances during the two-year contract."
But after the broken ribs, and the promise to never stray from Unequal, Vick again hurt his ribs against the Patriots. And again, the company was forced to scramble for an explanation. This time, Vick's coach had put the gear on blast: "Whatever he had on didn't work," Andy Reid said at the time. Unequal had to respond.
Vito barely waited for the next day before telling anyone who would listen that Vick had, again, not been wearing Unequal. This time, rather than claim the Unequal protection was too bulky for a hot day, the excuse was that Vick's flak jacket simply wasn't ready yet. He told Crossing Broad that they were "waiting for the Eagles equipment manager to place the order so that Vick can be custom-fitted for the 2012 season."
And then, yesterday, an unquestioning Darren Rovell passed along a grand pronouncement from Vito:
"I guarantee he will not get hurt."
Do we believe this? Do we even believe Vick wasn't wearing Unequal when he got hurt before? We have only the company's word to go on.
Kevlar isn't magic. It's a synthetic fiber developed in the 1970s as a replacement for steel, and is renowned for its high strength-to-weight ratio. It's found many applications, most recently for sporting goods companies like Unequal and Nike addressing the timely issue of player safety. "If Kevlar can stop a bullet, it can damn sure stop a blitz," Vito told Wired. That remains to be seen—scientists are skeptical that Kevlar-lined helmets do anything to prevent concussions. And even Vito admits that his company's vests absorb, at max, a quarter of the kinetic energy in a hit.
There should be no shame in Vick's injuries, even if they occurred with an Unequal flak jacket on. They can't stop hits, but they can retard them, and downgrade them, and for a scrambling player like Vick, that fractional protection can pay off in orders of magnitude. The flaw, then, is the company's insistence on the word "invincible," a completely impossible claim to live up to. But by standing by it, and literally guaranteeing Vick's safety, Unequal has backed itself into a corner. The alternative that they're sticking to, that the company's paid spokesperson hasn't been wearing their gear, is equally bad for business.