Michael Vick is one of, if not the most, polarizing figure in the history of American sports. His mercurial skills, horrendous crimes, and incarceration at the apex of his career have made, and continue to make, a story that is hard to resist. The facts themselves are juicy enough to invoke rabid supporters and detractors, but the internet age has allowed the public to be continuously inundated from all angles. The facts, or what pass as facts, have been endlessly reported, twisted and glossed over in so many ways and for so many different people’s purposes that it is really hard for anyone to see through all the muck and make a truly informed decision about how they feel about Mike Vick.
On the surface, Vick’s story has grown so large for an obvious reason: he was (and still could be) a premier player in the country’s most popular athletic organization. The NFL has its own channel, unprecedented revenues, a fanatical fan base, and unending coverage on ESPN, even during the offseason- even the smallest non-stories tend to get blown out of proportion. But the Vick situation goes much deeper than the fact that he throws a ball for a living- it is a case study in multiple social aspects of American society- race and tolerance, the way we treat convicts, and the many ways others can profit from the downfall of another. In my opinion, the results of this case study to date have been disappointing.
Michael Vick financed, committed, and conspired to commit multiple vicious crimes related to dog fighting. There is no argument, in public or with me, that the crimes he admitted to committing were horrendously cruel to animals. Vick himself has admitted as much. In a lot of ways, the fact that he pled guilty to his crimes, and that the details are so well known, has made his detractors more numerous and more unified. The majority of criminals to some degree maintain their innocence, because that is the natural thing to do for anyone, and no one wants to go to jail voluntarily- which usually is the consequence of admitting guilt. But the result of denying guilt is the remaining shadow of a doubt, even after a conviction, that someone who says they are innocent just might be; it presents the situation where one must take sides- who to believe, the defendant or the plaintiff? The evidence or the words? In America, when a person admits guilt, it triggers the instinct of the public to pile on and condemn a person so early on in the process that the opportunity for redemption is has been closed off- there is only one side to take when a man admits he’s guilty. I suspect that there are a decent number of people in this country who condemn Vick coming back because that is a sentiment that doesn’t need an explanation, whereas defending the man’s right to a second chance, forgiving him for his crimes, or recognizing that he has paid his debt to society needs to be defended somehow. And that’s the problem- it should be the other way around.
So why is it so hard for the public to forgive and forget? The answer is complex, for sure. I mean, why should anyone when the personal and professional benefits of condemning him are so great? PETA is an organization whose cause is inherently a good one- the protection of animals from the cruelty of humans. Obviously they had the right to speak out against Vick during his indictment, trial and incarceration. After all, he was a violator of their cause and what they believe in. But now that he has paid his debt to society, has said publicly he will be an advocate of animals rights and will be active in the community to further PETA’s cause, you would think that it would be beneficial for the organization to embrace a reformed, high profile athlete who is invested in its cause. Unfortunately, based on their track record of notorious smear campaigns, protests, and criminal acts, they won’t. They will continue to condemn him for years to come in very public ways because that is the best way to gain attention for themselves. I see PETA’s publicity stunts as very selfish in that they have their own interest in mind, putting animal rights in front of Vick’s rights to a second chance. The provocative headlines in Philly’s newspapers this morning are another example of benefitting from condemnation. The major papers in this city screamed negative headlines because thats the way to sell papers. The idea of condemning Vick, and the headlines and op-eds that go with it, cater to the vocal portion of the city that disagree with the decision, and are much more profitable than headlines that read ‘Good Job’. Those are pretty general reasons, but in Vick’s case I think it has to do with two other issues- his race and the type of crime he committed. Lets start with the latter: animals have a soft spot in Americans hearts- the crimes he committed inspire a very emotional reaction to those who have pets or who love animals. They view his crimes as an abuse of a human’s responsibility to nurture and care for domesticated animals, and that is true. Vick himself used the animals for his own personal pleasure and monetary gain with no regard for their welfare. But his crimes pale in comparison to crimes committed by others, crimes committed against humans. Yet, he’s being treated as if he murdered or raped someone. He didn’t. He is not a danger to those around him, or a danger to the community. The race issue is more complicated, and more subtle, maybe even subconscious. This country is long past the point of outward hate towards African Americans (except in Mississippi); the civil rights movement was 40 years ago. But there is still a definite undercurrent of people who do not show African Americans the same tolerance that they would afford a Caucasian. It’s accepted socially to be tolerant of all races and sexualities now, but individuals still, and perhaps always will, harbor personal biases based on race. Its been that way for thousands of years- people of different races disliked people of other races just because they were different. However, for the majority of history racial hate was based on the fact that nothing was known about the other race, or other civilization.In today’s sociaety, people of different races live side by side, and in this information age, it is possible to learn and be tolerant of other races much easier than it used to be. Yet the hate is still there, bubbling under the surface, which is a shame. I can’t help but wonder what the climate for Vick would be if he were white guy from Iowa. It certainly wouldn’t be great, but I think it would be a little less harsh in that more people would be willing to give him a second chance.
So what about that second chance? Doesn’t he deserve one? His job was an NFL quarterback before any of this happened, so why can’t that be his job anymore? If he were a trashman, or an accountant, or a doctor, he would be allowed to continue his life working at his profession. I don’t by Roger Goodell’s stance that playing in the NFL is a ‘privilege’. It’s his job, and it’s his right. His crime has nothing to do with his job performance. He should be a shining example of the American judiciary system and public working together to reform criminals. That is, after all, the entire point of the prison system. Except in extreme cases, the idea is to reform criminals and turn them into productive members of society upon release. Why is it so hard to believe that it may have worked in Vick’s case? I watched the press conferences, and the man seemed truly and remarkably remorseful, humble, and changed. I heard some yahoo on talk radio this morning yapping about how Vick hasn’t earned his second chance, how he hasn’t proven worthy yet. What do you want the man to do? Go door to door and do the river dance for you? He deserves a second chance, no questions asked.
Obviously, the Eagles didn’t sign Vick as a charitable donation. They want to see the guy who wowed everyone a few years back, and it’s quite possible that it will happen; he’s only 29. But at the end of the day, the Eagles are taking a chance that he will disrupt their image, practice, games, fan base, etc. just by association. The brass knows it’s coming: the intense media scrutiny, protests… But there are potential benefits off the field too; if he walks the walk and is proactive in the community the way he says he will be, it could turn out to be a great thing for the Birds. Regardless, someone needed to give the guy a second shot at his life. I, personally, am proud that my hometown team has the guts, compassion, and stability to overlook the inevitable immediate reaction and give Michael Vick the shot he deserves. Good luck, Mike Vick. I hope you succeed, even if it’s not on the field for the Birds.