Vick lacked the courage to help.

* NFL’s Vick prepares to plead guilty in dog-fighting operation

So let’s go ahead and redefine “keeping it real,” shall we?

We might as well, now that Michael Vick kept it real stupid and probably is headed to a federal penitentiary, the vacation destination of choice for men who believe criminal behavior and a lack of education are cultural benchmarks.

Trust me, I take no satisfaction in Vick’s decision to reach a plea agreement on dogfighting charges or his impending incarceration. The lack of parole and rehabilitation opportunities in federal penitentiaries and the mental disease caused by those shortcomings are as revolting to me as the crimes that land men there.

But this column won’t be a blast on our morally bankrupt penal institutions. This column will be about the lesson we all should take from Vick’s dramatic fall. Not long ago, the man did have the world by the tail. He owned a $130 million contract in a city, Atlanta, that adored him, and he was labeled a “franchise” quarterback.

He threw it all away because he bought into the self-destructive, immature, hip-hop model of “keeping it real.”

The Atlanta Falcons and owner Arthur Blank introduced and ushered Michael Vick into a brand-new world, a world that required Vick to carry himself in a more mainstream manner, a world of wealth, privilege, responsibility and the appearance of ethics and morality.

It’s a world all starting quarterbacks are asked to join. The position is the most prestigious in sports.

Vick wanted to do things his way. He wanted to customize the position in terms of style of play and off-field demeanor. He wanted to keep it real by keeping his feet in the seedy world he once knew and the new world that demanded a squeakier image.

The worlds don’t mix.

Michael Vick should not have abandoned his boyz from the hood, the gentlemen who predictably and quickly accepted plea agreements and squealed on Vick. He should’ve demonstrated the courage to demand that they join him on his new journey. He should’ve forced them to abandon him.

You follow?

It appears, according to federal investigators, that Vick financed his friends’ illegal dogfighting activity. Vick may have enjoyed dogfighting, but he certainly didn’t need the “sport.” He didn’t need a home dedicated to breeding and training pit bulls. He didn’t need to open and operate Bad Newz Kennels.

It’s my belief that if Vick stayed involved with dogfighting, he did so primarily because it was a way to stay involved in an activity in which his “boys” still participated. It was Vick’s way of keeping it real. He was fearful of being labeled a sellout, fearful of having his blackness questioned.

This is a burden we’ve created for ourselves. We fight our own evolution. This must end. We need to redefine keeping it real.

For athletes and other people who experience professional success, keeping it real should mean offering your lifelong friends and family members an opportunity to acquire the skills necessary to join the mainstream.

This may sound naive and a bit comical, but it’s the truth: Rather than financing dogfighting, Vick should’ve paid for educational opportunities. He should’ve tried to help establish his cousins and friends in a legitimate business.

If they were uninterested in that, Vick should’ve informed them that he had nothing but love for ’em. No matter the problem, you can’t help people who are uninterested in helping themselves. You have to develop the courage to stop someone else’s weakness from drowning you. Vick, to me, is a coward. He wasn’t man enough to define for his friends what was in his best interest and what he would and would not tolerate.

Helping a friend or family member wallow in stupidity or self-destructive behavior is not keeping it real. It’s enabling a problem, a problem that could eventually engulf you. Ask Michael Vick.