Have you seen the film Backdraft? Robert De Niro plays a fire chief who shows up at an arsonist’s (Donald Sutherland) parole hearing each and every year. He makes it his business to goad Sutherland’s character into revealing his true firestarter heart and blowing his chance at parole.
I’m no De Niro, but, if American football fans are going to continue to glorify Michael Vick, I’m going to continue to object. Almost every time I express my visceral disgust for Michael Vick’s unspeakable cruelty, significant doubt as to the sincerity of his remorse and overwhelming contempt for any touting of him as a role model, I run squarely into a wall of hostile denial. “He’s paid his debt to society." He’s served his time." "He deserves a second chance.” Or worse: “He said he’s sorry; why can’t you get over it?”
Excuse me? All right, let me explain.
Yes, legally and civilly, his crime has been put behind him. He served his court-ordered sentence. He absolutely deserves the chance to begin his life again and try to make of it what he can. Socially, we are not justified in any violence or discrimination against him as he goes about making a living. He has a legal and cultural right in America to get whatever job someone is willing to give him and to earn whatever the free market will pay.
And here are two facts for the record: 1) No one is a bigger fan of the NFL than I am and 2) I am positively awestruck at his athletic gifts. And let’s not make a mistake here—they are gifts. Up until the summer of 2010, he did nothing to earn or work at his athletic performance; he has admitted this numerous times. He was born with speed, vision and a rocket launcher on his left shoulder. He hasn’t been honing his craft since the age of six like Peyton Manning, Wes Welker, Donovan McNabb or thousands of other professional athletes.
Apparently Vick’s time in prison did truly teach him the value of a work ethic. Well, bully for him. Welcome to the millions of human beings who work hard to be good at their jobs. His talent remains exactly the same thing as being born beautiful. You don’t get to take credit for it, and you certainly shouldn’t be lauded as any kind of special human being because of it.
But we seem destined again this NFL season to hearing about Vick’s redemption. “Redemption” is defined as “atonement for guilt." I simply do not see it.
And don’t even start to tell me about all of those interviews where Vick confessed his arrogance and despicable acts. This man did not have an epiphany one Sunday afternoon out in the Virginia countryside whereupon he suddenly realized that torturing, maiming and killing innocent animals were crimes against nature. He did not then disband his horrible torture mill, hold a press conference denouncing his actions and fund a multi-million dollar cross-media campaign against animal abuse. He got caught. And then he lied about it: to the public, to the commissioner of the NFL, to his employers and to law enforcement. So forgive me if I’m not impressed by post-prison softball televised conversations in which he states, repeatedly but strangely without affect, that he is guilty on all counts. See, we already KNOW that.
If you need a refresher course on the holocaust he visited on those dogs, please see Bill Plaschke’s exceptional article in the L.A. Times. I re-read his piece when sitting down to write this commentary, and it made my stomach clench and my chest grow tight. Try it. And then try not to forget it when you listen to hours of sports coverage lauding Vick as a football hero.
It is possible that Michael Vick has truly changed, that he is deeply remorseful about his profoundly immoral deeds. It is possible that his statements about those actions are heartfelt and that he just LOOKS like he’s mouthing a PR script. I don’t know. I don’t know him. But I do find some of his post-incarceration actions to resemble Public Image damage control rather than repentance.
Tony Dungy reached out to Vick. He explained to him that, among other things, it’s usually considered a socially advisable idea to marry the mother of two of your children. Vick promptly proposed to his girlfriend of then seven years. Oh, and he did it on television—in his very own reality show over a year ago. I have done some research and can find no evidence that the two have married.
Just before his release, Vick’s representatives contacted the Humane Society and asked for Michael to become publicly involved with them. He has spoken to groups of inner city boys about the evils of dog-fighting. He travels to these speaking engagements at his own expense. I could find no evidence of monetary donations, and he certainly isn’t broke any more! Some sources state that he “gave” one million dollars to the rehabilitation of the 47 pit bulls that were still healthy enough to be rescued from his nightmare kennels. But records of his bankruptcy show that he had to sell assets in order to pay the court ordered criminal restitution for his victims’ care. If anyone has different or contradictory knowledge, please do not hesitate to bring it to my attention.
The most compelling post-incarceration action by Vick to date was his visit to Congress with Humane Society representatives to strength anti-dog-fighting laws. This action last summer leads me to hope that there may be some true redemption dawning for Vick. The carefully worded facts of his limited relationship with the Humane Society are available here. .
Does Vick need to serve public penitence in order for me to believe that he is sincere and possibly on the road to redemption? Well, yes. Is that fair? Of course not. But neither is the fact that he is once again a wealthy, respected and even admired man when many, many truly changed people struggle to find any kind of employment with a felony on their records.
I work with a non-profit that provides job training and careers to severely low income young adults. Quite a few of our participants are convicted felons who cannot find a job due to their past misdeeds. Ironically, there are only three crimes that disqualify an applicant: murder, child abuse and animal abuse. So no, I don’t think it’s too much to expect a wealthy and publicly acclaimed figure to publicly expend emotional and financial assets to wipe out a frankly evil practice that Western society has been trying for centuries to obliterate. Is he legally or socially required to do so? No. Is it the price of moral restitution? I think so.
An American redemption story is Bill Wilson, who went from being a hopeless drunk to founding Alcoholics Anonymous. An American redemption story is Judge Greg Mathis, who famously went from “jail to judge in 15 years” and now spends his working life trying to teach lessons of personal responsibility. Not to mention the thousands of simply decent men and women who’ve turned their lives around and spend time sharing their experiences with others in order to help them.
I am deeply disappointed in the American football fan. I am deeply disappointed in the Eagles’ ownership. The money won. Vick is simply too much of a superstar not be playing QB in the NFL. He’s worth too much money to a 10 billion dollar business. Too many paying fans turn into the three monkeys of denial; they’d rather have a winning team and a thrilling athlete to watch. It is an American story after all. A man who is at the very least capable of evil, and could be a sociopath, is once again a multi-millionaire. But the moral of the story isn’t redemption; the moral is that sometimes, the universe can be terribly unfair.