Ponder these words for a minute: rehabilitate, redeem, remorse, incarceration, guilty, exile, forgiveness.
They are a jumble of powerful words that are not always properly understood and are sometimes used incorrectly.
I think of those words and several others when I consider the eventual freedom of a famous prisoner in Leavenworth, Kansas.
I wonder how we will interpret and use those words when this man is set free.
The 28-year-old Michael Vick, a federal prisoner who was once the highest paid player in the National Football League, will be going home in less than two weeks.
Vick will be released into home confinement for the remaining eight weeks of his prison term. Ironically, the end of Vick’s sentence will neatly coincide with the start of NFL training camps.
The end of July traditionally marks the beginning of a new season for most NFL players. It could mean a fresh start for Vick who would like to resume his football career after missing two seasons.
But it could also mark the beginning of the coldest reception ever received by an athlete.
Sadly, many athletes have been in trouble. And some, like Vick, have spent time in prison. Several have even been connected to crimes where people have died.
Yet a number of them went on to successfully compete and star again. But none of them, I believe, at any point faced the utter contempt and widespread anger that has been directed at Vick.
There is no disputing that Vick’s crimes were horrendous. Vick’s greatest burden will likely be that he will forever be known as a man who not only ran a dog-fighting operation, but was extremely cruel to the dogs he owned.
In some cases, the evidence indicates that he apparently participated in the torture and killing of dogs that did not perform well in fights.
Still, I am uncomfortable with how all of this is playing out. I am troubled by the vitriol that has been heaped on Vick.
The response feels wildly out of proportion to the crimes he committed, considering what we have tolerated from other athletes.
For his crimes, as terrible as they were, Vick pled guilty and will soon have served his time. I always thought that in this country a man once released has a right to return to society and try to reclaim his life.
How should NFL teams, the commissioner, fellow players, and fans deal with a free Michael Vick. The criminal justice system soon will indicate that he has paid his debt.
Is there an additional public debt that Vick must now pay? And if so, for how long?
So I ask: What is enough? What more do we want from Vick?
Public opinion will play a huge role in what happens to Vick in the future. There are many people who say they are prepared to protest—and even boycott—any team that dares to sign him to a contract.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell says that Vick must show “genuine remorse” and demonstrate that he is a changed man if he is to be considered for reinstatement.
I ask though, how high is that bar of remorse?
Perhaps we need to look at this through the eyes and heart of Tony Dungy, one of the most respected and honorable men in the history of professional football.
In what was only described as a private meeting, the former NFL coach met this week with Vick behind bars at Leavenworth.
Dungy’s meeting with Vick was extremely important. Dungy is not just a football coach, he has considerable experience talking with and counseling prisoners.
His prison outreach ministry is one of the reason’s the Super Bowl-winning coach decided to retire from the NFL after last season. Dungy believes in both discipline and redemption.
I hope that one day Dungy will share his thoughts about the imprisoned quarterback. What Dungy saw and and heard from Vick should go a long way toward shaping how we understand Vick.
It may be that only a man like Dungy can lend the much-needed perspective to bring common sense, understanding, and closure to our feelings about Vick.
I believe how we receive the former Atlanta quarterback upon his release from prison will say more about us as people than it may ever say about Michael Vick, the convicted felon.