There is nothing that America, and our intrepid sportswriters, loves more than a stirring comeback. When a talented athlete is able to heal, or start playing well again, or stop smoking pot, or put legal problems behind him, it is held up as an example of the redemptive ability of change, or the heartwarming power of the human spirit, or whatever other cringe-inducing phrase Rick Reilly pulls out of his Rolodex of cliches.
Most of the time, the inevitable overkill of the sports media ruins these stories for me. Just because someone with superior physical genes can overcome obstacles… well, that’s what we all do (hopefully). It is part of the mirroring of life that makes sports so compelling, but the usual mixture of hyperbole, lack of perspective and hero worship can get old pretty quickly.
However, this weekend the most compelling and surprising of these comeback stories in a long time occurred to near silence. A former physical prodigy came back from a self-impossed wilderness to reclaim his place as a starting QB in the NFL. He overcame every possible obstacle bar injury (legal problems, bankruptcy, universal hatred, questions about his physical skills). Not being sure how to address it, sportswriters everywhere are whistling and examining their fingernails.
Ladies and gentlemen, Michael Vick.
Obvious But Necessary Disclaimer: I believe that dogfighting is both morally repugnant and criminal. Our society should treat all animals with respect. People who don’t should be held legally responsible. We should do what we can to limit as much as possible torture and abuse of all animals.
The Recap: Born to unwed teenagers in Newport News, VA, Vick grew up in the projects. He came out of nowhere as a redshirt freshman to lead formerly minor power Virginia Tech to the National Championship Game and finish third in Heisman voting. The Hokies lost while he was out with an injury the next year, but he brought them to a Gator Bowl win and #6 end-of-season ranking. He was drafted first the next year by the Atlanta Falcons, having never lost a college game.
Although some critics (i.e. The Dilemma) continued to contend that Vick lacked the accuracy and patience to ever join the NFL elite, in six seasons with the Falcons he: 1) beat the Packers at Lambeau in their first home playoff loss ever; 2) brought the team to the NFL Championship game; 3) set the record for the most rushing yards in a season (1.039) and a game (173) for a QB); 4) held the record for most yards-per-rush (7.5) of any NFL player; 5) went to three Pro Bowls; 6) signed the richest deal in NFL history (10 yrs./$130 million). He also sent white sportswriters into regular spasms of indignation (think an angry orgasm) with minor incidents ranging from flipping off his home crowd after being booed to several allegations involving the demon weed. Needless to say, he dueled with Randy Moss for the title of D.S.C.’s Favorite Non-Bear.
Then came the fall. In April of 2007, a search warrant on property owned by Vick in Virginia was executed. Over seventy dogs, mostly pit bulls, some injured, were seized along with physical evidence of dogfighting activities. Vick and three others were indicted for running Bad Newz Kennels, a six-year-old dogfighting ring. Dogfighting, gambling, dog executions (by hanging, drowning, electrocuting, shooting) and violent training/punishment… this was the business of Bad Newz Kennels. After first lying about it to everyone from prosecutors to his fans to the owner of the Falcons, Vick admitted to participating in and funding the ring, and received 23 months in prison (more than federal sentencing guidelines and the prosecutors recommended, and more than his more hands-on co-defendents, who all agreed to testify against him, got… although he probably wasn’t helped by testing positive for pot while awaiting sentencing). He was sent not to a country club prison, but to to Leavenworth, Kansas, a federal fuck-you-in-the-ass prison. Vick was also forced to file bankruptcy, the sudden termination of his football and endorsement money leaving him millions in debt (not helped by the 30K a month he continued to shell out to support friends and relatives).
Just so that I’m not accused of being a Pollyanna about the horrendous nature of Vick’s activities, this is dog fighting:
As is this:
Repeat: In my view, we are not talking about a morally neutral activity here.
The Comeback: After his release, Vick signed a two-year, $6.6 million contract with Philadelphia Eagles, which presumably assuaged his financial problems (assuming he learned his lessons about spending stupidly… not a given for an athlete). After finishing his 34-week suspension, he first saw action in Week Three of the 2009 season, more than two years after his last game. He played sparingly throughout the season as the Eagles’ third QB, looking rusty and a bit lost on the field.
After the Eagles surprisingly picked up his 2010 option and traded Donovan McNabb, he headed into this season as the Eagles back-up. Conventional wisdom held that he wouldn’t get much of a chance to play, and probably didn’t still have the skills to be a good QB even if he did. After Kevin Kolb sucked and got a concussion in the first half of Week One, Vick passed for 175 yards and 1 TD and rushed for another 103 yards in the second half. On Sunday, Kolb’s continuing recovery gave Vick his first start in over three years. He passed for 284 yards and 2 TDs and rushed for another 37 yards in leading the Eagles to the win.
Because of the continued strong public opinion against Vick and the general timidity of highly-paid sportswriters, there was a awkward sense of unease about how to deal with his triumph this morning. There were no breathless accounts of Vick riding the team bus to the stadium, recounting in his mind all the stupid mistakes, all the silent nights alone with his thoughts in his prison cell, all the little battles to regain his life. There were few mentions of the borderline-miraculous nature of his journey back. There were no plaudits for Vick’s paying his debt to society and maturing from his disgrace (see: “I came into this season and this year as the backup and that’s been my mindset. I’ve been working hard to be reliable whenever I’m needed. That’s the way it is, and the way it’s gonna be throughout the season” – Vick’s response to going back to the bench next week). Usually, all of this is de rigueur for these types of tales. But the media has decided not to celebrate Vick’s quest for redemption with as much energy as it decried him during his fall from grace (see: the lack of coverage of the surprising fact that Vick’s teammates voted him the Ed Block Courage Award last year, given by each team’s players to the teammate who “exemplifies commitment to the principles of sportsmanship and courage”).
The Reason: Why is Vick still a social pariah, when athletes and other celebrities are regularly allowed to rehabilitate their careers and reputations after horrible transgressions, even when they pay nowhere close to the bill Vick paid? Let’s call them The Hysterical Statements Of Overblown Public Opinion (Vick Version).
Statement #1: Anybody Who Participates In Dogfighting Is A Horrible, Irredeemable Human Being
Fine… As long as you are willing to write-off the tens of thousands of participants in the U.S. (according to the ASPCA and the Humane Society). Reliable numbers for worldwide participants are unavailable, but undoubtedly run in the millions. And given that it was the sport of the elite in Britain and their colonies for centuries through the mid-1800’s, many celebrated figures of the past (such as Queen Elizabeth I) were fans of the bloodsports. Anybody who has travelled knows that our respect for animals would be scoffed at in many places. I’m glad I live in a country that generally tries to treat animals well… but I’m not willing to call every person who doesn’t evil. You can hate the sin without banishing the sinner.
Also… As long as you are chomping on a tofu nugget while wearing canvas shoes. Because this is where your leather comes from:
And this is where your Chicken McNuggets come from:
What Vick did to dogs pales in comparison to what our food companies do to the animals we eat. And don’t tell me it’s different because eating is a necessity while Vick tortured dogs for pleasure. The reason people (including myself) choose to eat meat over vegetarian fare is because it’s more pleasurable, not because it’s nutritiously necessary.
Statement #2: It’s Disgusting That Vick Was Able To Walk Out Of Prison And Become A Millionaire Again
Fair enough… but you never get to accuse Obama or anybody else of infringing upon the free market, because that’s what it is. Vick has skills that nobody else has ever had and people pay lots of money to be entertained by these skills. So if you watch football, that’s what you’re paying for (or the commercials are paying for). I’ll listen to you if you don’t watch football… so long as you also don’t go to bad movies or buy US Weekly magazine or go out to expensive meals or spend money in any of the uncountable ways Americans do for meaningless entertainment.
Statement #3: Vick’s Punishment Was Way Too Light To Consider Forgiving Him
Feeling badly for a celebrity for getting a harsher sentence is like feeling badly for a hot girl for getting turned down once. The pros of being a famous athlete couldn’t outweigh the cons by more than they do. Nevertheless, if Michael Vick had been a bus driver, there is no way he would have been sentenced to 23 months in prison. Most likely, the case would have gotten little to no attention beyond the local news and would have been pled out quietly. He wouldn’t have been the focus of the investigation and his co-defendents wouldn’t have been induced to testify against him exclusively. And the judge likely wouldn’t have increased the prosecution’s recommendation of 12 to 18 months. According to a Vanderbilt University Law Blog, in a similar Michigan case the eight defendants got six months. Given that we’re the world’s leader in incarcerations (with 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s prisoners), the idea that criminals like Vick are unconscionably coddled by the justice system doesn’t hold with me at all. Add to that the loss of everything Vick owned, and that he sullied his name in the most public of ways, and that he had to begin over in his chosen profession, and I would argue that at the very least he didn’t receive a light punishment.
Especially when you compare it to the way in which America usually deals with transgressing celebrities. Actors, athletes, politicians… all sorts of public figures are caught up in scandals and then go on to reclaim their lucrative careers. Many times, this has to do with the celebrity in question harming themselves (drugs) or their families (infidelity)… Vick harmed innocent animals… fair enough. But there are plenty of examples where other people were harmed. Vince Neil killed his passenger and delivered permanent brain damage to the two passengers of another car when he chose to drive with a 0.17 B.A.L…. he served 15 days in jail. William S. Burroughs shot and killed his wife in Mexico, paid off the authorities to leave, and became a literary legend. R. Kelly and Kobe Bryant, among many others, have had nasty allegations forgotten as they continue to earn. Of course, as Lt. Caffee would remind us, it doesn’t matter what we believe, it only matters what we can prove. But most Steelers fans, along with myself, believe that Ben Roethlisberger sexually assaulted a college student he had liquored up in the bathroom of a bar while his bodyguard kept her friends from intervening. And if he wins the Super Bowl this year, they’ll cheer and forget about the whole thing.
Statement #4: The Notion That The Culture He Grew Up In Provides Some Excuse Is Absurd
I grew up in a culture where it was expected that you graduated from college. There were safe streets, good teachers, plentiful libraries, money to travel and go on field trips. Myself and everybody I know went to college. Almost everybody I know has an undergraduate college degree (vs. less than 30% of the U.S. population). A good number have a graduate degree (vs. less than 10% of the U.S. population). Was it ultimately my choice to get a Bachelors and a Masters degree? Yes. But the odds were greatly stacked in my favor.
By numerous accounts, dogfighting was a popular pastime where Vick grew up. There was rampant unemployment, serious gang activity, drug-filled streets and a lack of social options. Was it Vick’s choice to get knee-deep in dogfighting? Yes. But it wasn’t like he came up with the idea out of thin air.
Statement #5: The Strength Of Our Censure Has Nothing To Do With Vick’s Race
Give me a fucking break. The media and popular treatment of Vick (and Moss and Allen Iverson and Manny Ramirez, etc.) has everything to do with race. This doesn’t mean that it’s conscious or overt. But most sportswriters, radio hosts, television personalities are white, and even more of their bosses are as well. People tend to be more sympathetic towards people similar to themselves. And, culturally, African-Americans have a divergence of opinions from White America on a host of issues, dogfighting included.
I will reconsider this stance when you can find one African-American who agrees with the Statement.
Statement #6: Michael Vick Did It To Himself, And Whatever He Got Is His Own Damn Fault
Can’t argue with that. But then everything he’s done to make up for his misdeeds should be given the same agency.
Maybe it’s my own personal biases/behavior but I have more sympathy for/interest in someone who has nobody but themselves to blame. The fickle finger of fate can touch anyone… that’s part of life. But the most tragic figures, both in art and in reality, are taken down by the same things that make them great. It’s why Richard Nixon in the most consistently compelling President. It makes their redemption that much more fraught with meaning. Because they didn’t just heal a tendon or overtake a rival… they changed something inside of themselves.
I’m not saying that Michael Vick didn’t deserve punishment, or shouldn’t be on a short leash (no pun intended), or should be held up as a paragon of virtue. But he did his time, and should be given credit for rebuilding his life in the face of overwhelming public hatred. And the next time an athlete comes back from the comparatively easy road of injury or bad performance and is treated by the media like a conquering hero, just know how hollow their praise is. Because Michael Vick really did lie in a cell in the middle of Kansas, staring up at the ceiling, stripped of everything, having gone from the heights of our society to the depths, knowing that it was all his fault, night after night after night. And he came out of prison and started over and succeeded. And to never forgive him because dogfighting is icky and nauseating simply seems to me to be un-American.