Immediate reaction to the column, which will appear in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 5 issue, was knee-jerk, swift and overwhelmingly negative.
Many sports fans hate when issues of race are even brought up. If that's you, you're probably in the wrong column. More significantly, the response was interestingly centered less on the article itself and much more on the picture (which has since been, justifiably, removed)—hearkening back to days when this was considered appropriate.
Don't misunderstand—simply digitizing Vick is not a crime worthy of picketing The Worldwide Leader. The issue here is ESPN deciding to pander to the lowest common denominator and utilizing race as shock value rather than discussion building.
The article itself is extremely well-done.
The author of the column, Touré, is a phenomenal writer, and ESPN has a really good thing going if he will continue to write for their magazine. His interesting take on race issues and pop culture can be seen not only on Fuse and MSNBC but also in his three published books (most notably, Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?). ESPN is hardly his first stint in the magazine world. Touré has written for The Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and The New Yorker.
His work here is incredibly poignant and relevant to the overall Vick discussion. Rather than rehash the tired storyline of redemption from dogfighting, Touré writes about how Vick's experiences and his story should transcend race.
This shouldn't be a white or black issue. The storyline appropriately shifts to a nuanced discussion of nature and nurture, leading the reader to forget race—if only for a second—and see Vick...
...as someone in the third act of the epic movie that is his life, leading a team that many expect to see in the Super Bowl. Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" is playing underneath because the humbled protagonist has finally overcome his personal demons and has begun living up to his athletic promise.
The issue here is not with Touré.
Presentation is an important element of any entertainment medium, and never is it more crucial than online. Branding can kill a product, and ESPN shoved a giant stake into the heart of what could have been an amazingly positive story.
"What if Michael Vick were white" is not only an incredibly inappropriate headline for this column, it is actually the exact question the author didn't want to pose. A simple cursory read through would have convinced any editor of that. However, it seems ESPN did not give Touré that courtesy.
In fact, it gets worse.
From Touré's Twitter account: "I asked them not to call it What If Vick Were White but they did." And worse yet: "I had no idea they'd put a pic of Vick in whiteface. Makes no sense with an essay saying it's impossible to re-imagine him as white?"
Not only were ESPN's decision-makers horribly ignorant of the true essence of this column, they turned a brilliant discussion of transcending race into a farcical game of "what if?"
Michael Schottey is an NFL Associate Editor of Bleacher Report. A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, he has professionally covered the Minnesota Vikings and the Detroit Lions, as well as NFL events like the Scouting Combine and the Senior Bowl. Follow him on Twitter.