>Michael Vick: Super Bowl Redemption, At What Cost?

>Good lord, I can’t keep waiting two weeks in between posts if I’m going to try to make this blog legitimate.  Blogs are meant to be checked regularly and I haven’t done a good job about writing regular updates.  Blogs are also meant to contain short, conscise tidbits of interesting or humorous or newsworthy information.  I haven’t done a good job about being short and conscise either, but let me say I’m trying to get better on that. 

Unfortunately, this post does not mark my entrance into shorter postings.  In fact, it’s the longest post I’ve written and I’m afraid it’s length will turn away many readers. Nonetheless, I set out to make a point and felt this post had to be as long as it is.  I promise that posts from here on out will be shorter and more direct.  Even though I haven’t been posting, I do want to say that I think about writing on this blog literally all the time.  I have lots of ideas and there’s so much to comment on these days, so there won’t be any shortage of thoughts any time soon.  So if you stick with me through this post, I’ll make it worth your while down the line.

One of the easier things to write about, for me, is sports.  I know it’s kind of a polarizing topic that not everyone is interested in, but I think what happened this past Monday night with the Eagles and Michael Vick goes beyond sports in a number of ways. I want to use that game as a starting point for getting out a bunch of thoughts I’ve been having lately about Michael Vick, criminal justice, the NFL, the Eagles, dogfighting, and race relations.  But let’s start with the actual game.

The first play from scrimmage, Vick rolls back on a play action fake and heaves one of the prettiest throws you’ll find in the NFL. Went right into the arms of my boy DeSean Jackson for an 88-yard touchdwon. Here’s the video, in high definition baby:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTAiypz60dM&feature=player_embedded

After the game, Steve Young, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, a left-handed thrower like Vick and a fellow scrambler, was speechless at the performance that he just witnessed by Vick.  He seemed to think that this was some new form of quarterbacking, a beastly conglomeration of athleticism and precision and awareness and accuracy that we had never before seen in the history of the sport.  And he’s absolutely right.  Football fans won’t find it hard to remember when Vick was easily the most exciting player in the league, playing for an overall mediocre Atlanta Falcons team.  The man didn’t study tape, he didn’t work out, he didn’t have the fire or competitive edge that you see from Peyton Manning or Tom Brady—but now he has all those things, and he wants to win more than anything else.  The Eagles coaching staff, one of the best in the league over the past 10+ years, have turned Vick into a pocket passer every bit as good as Donovan McNabb was in his prime.  They’ve taught him the fundamentals, instilled the discipline for him to become an elite pocket passer in this league, and it all came out last night against a solid Redskins defense.

Problem is, Vick still has those same two legs that made him the most exciting and dangerous player in the league just five years ago.  The combination of Vick’s scrambling abilities, with his newfound vision and patience in the pocket, have given us what I believe is the first prototype of what the future QBs of this league might look like.  When your quarterback can scramble to get out of trouble, extend the play, and then either throw it down field or take off running, it adds so much to your offense that defenses in this league, as they are today, are simply not equipped to stop such a threat. 

Me and Jacob have discussed that in the future we may see more and more quarterbacks who are shear athletic specimens who can both run like Chris Johnson and throw like Drew Brees.  It may or may not be the direction the league is heading in, but Vick is showing us that it’s a damn effective way to win a football game.  I’ve been skeptical for a while about where Vick is in his development, none of us have had a full season sample size to judge him, but I think most Eagles fans at this point feel as though they’ve seen enough to believe a Super Bowl is a distinct possibility.  Count me on that wagon, even though I know there’s still a lot of work to be done and there’s no way Vick could ever match or exceed his performance from Monday night.  It’s important to remember, it really does not get any better than that, so only time will tell how Vick responds under higher pressure games and against better defenses.

And now I’ve got to add my sociological interjection:  let’s just hypothetically pretend that Vick goes on to win the Super Bowl this year with the Eagles.  How would this not be one of the greatest sports stories of all-time?  After all Vick has gone through?  I’m sorry, I’ve got to take you back to the dog-fighting business; it needs to be revisited to get to the bottom of what a Super Bowl victory would mean for Vick, our society, and race relations in America.

Vick’s treatment by the media and the public after the dog-fighting scandal quickly became utterly out of control.  When celebrities or athletes drive drunk and hit people, or assault someone, punch a stripper, or steal a purse from an old lady, the media will cover the story accordingly, people will vilify said athlete/celebrity for his/her inappropriate behavior, and we’ll move on.  Maybe they’ll go to jail for a bit, maybe they’ll do some community service for that DUI, but never would someone get two years in prison for punching a stripper.  It just doesn’t happen.  Seriously, Adam “Pacman” Jones famously grabbed a stripper by the hair, and punched her in the face, then got involved in an outside altercation involving guns, where a couple guys got shot.  No one was killed, Pacman got a suspended prison sentence of one year and 200 hours of community service.

Now, I’m not asking you to decide which is worse between punching a woman in the face and getting involved in a gun fight or torturing and killing a ton of dogs….but, seriously, as someone who absolutely loves dogs, I still can’t believe how much more this nation sympathized with them over the human beings who get mugged, slapped, beaten, and assaulted by professional athletes all the time.  And that’s where you can start to really understand what happened with Vick and the dogfighting business, because it wasn’t really about the dogs at all.  Yes, every article you read about it, especially the ones defending Vick, made the obligatory mention of how incredibly barbaric and cruel dogfighting and dog torturing is, but those journalists or bloggers had to say that because anything less than agreeing that dogfighting is a sick and twisted behavior would be the equivalent of invalidating their article for the vast majority of the American public.  In that sense, writers were forced to focus on the morality of dogfighting, rather than the act itself or the reasons someone like Vick might be involved in it.

So let me be clear:  dogfighting, especially when done in such a large-scale, almost factory-like operation, is almost unanimously perceived by the American public as, for lack of a better word:  sick.  We believe that there must be something wrong inside you for you to get pleasure out of such behavior, thus those who fight dogs are sick.  This sickness or “illness” apparently contained within Vick  became grotesquely warped by the mass media; suddenly it was one of the biggest stories of the year because one of the most famous and exciting athletes in the world was found to be engaging in egregious violations of social norms.  Was it as heinous as beating up a woman–a human being?  Perhaps not, however, it was perceived as vastly more heinous than beating up a woman because the behavior is so foreign, so taboo, so sick and twisted and unlike anything the American people had truly come into close contact with before that it was cast as one of the absolute worst things a household name like Michael Vick could do.  It’s important to remember that this is the American media and the American public that are perceiving Vick in this way.  In other countries, dogfighting is as commonplace as deer hunting is in the U.S.—it’s ingrained as an acceptable practice in cultures all across the world.

But in America we focus on American perspectives and Vick’s story, of course, sold itself.  How could a superstar, with a $130 million contract and millions of admirers involve himself in something like this?  The answer the media gave would inevitably teem with racial undertones. Vick’s identity: his background and history and most importantly his race, would ultimately shed more light onto the questions of “why” he did it than anything else.  The media rarely took the time or effort to investigate dogfighting as a cultural practice, how it was commonplace in Vick’s childhood neighborhood, how the police condoned it and how he was never taught it was wrong.  He was apparently also never taught it was wrong to skip out on workouts or a tape-studying session in the NFL, but that’s also an indication of his personality and work ethic.  Vick’s natural abilities propelled him into stardom and wealth so fast that there was never a moment, never a need, to stop and self-reflect—besides, his track record was clean—who would be audacious enough to step in and tell him he needs to work harder or stay out of trouble when everything was going so well?   He had become one of the most successful athletes in the world by being himself, so he wasn’t going to fix anything that wasn’t broken. 

But Vick was broken, in more ways than one.  He was immature and impressionable and got involved with the wrong group of people who convinced him that financing a dogfighting ring would be fun, exciting, and risque in that sort of badass, street cred way.  Vick grew up in Newport News, Virginia, a tough neighborhood where being a “badass” through violent, dangerous, or otherwise illegal behavior was an important way for a young man to assert his masculinity.  Sports, as in most areas of urban poverty, provided the one ticket out of such a depressed and dangerous environment.  Although Vick stamped that ticket all the way to superstardom in the NFL, his Newport News roots would remain.

Thus, when the media condemned Vick for the “illness” within him that compelled him to fight dogs, they were symbolically and inadvertently recasting their condemnation as an assault on Vick’s blackness.  It’s not Vick who was ill, but rather the social structures and culture surrounding him that produced these behaviors. The national media’s attack on Vick became synonymous with their usual attack on poor black Americans, specifically those living in urban centers.  Everyday, news media outlets project images and stories of urban crime that disproportionately reflect black people as thugs and criminals.  White America’s uneasiness with black people living in poor communities became symbolized through Vick’s villification. The media sensed an opportunity to heighten feelings of social anxiety toward black deviance by framing their coverage around the fact that Vick, even with his $130 million contract, was still capable of these behaviors.  The national concern, however, did not shift to questions of why Vick did this or how he was led to act this way (which seems like a pretty logical question to ask when you’ve got an insanely rich and famous guy doing something utterly taboo and illegal), but rather:  how should we punish someone who literally had it all, and still decided to break the law in such shocking fashion?

The answer would be:  as hard as possible. Vick received two years in a federal prison, thus beginning the process of his public reformation.

Vick claimed he cried many nights in prison, not able to understand what had led him to throw his life away:  his family, his friends, football, money, fame, respect.  Only when it was all taken away, it seemed, could he truly appreciate what he had.  Before, when I mentioned he had never previously needed to take a moment to stop and reflect?  Suddenly he had two years with nothing to do but reflect…and regret his past decisions.  After getting out of prison, there’s no doubt Vick felt remorse about missing two years of time with his family, and of course losing over $100 million of salary and endorsements.  But he had made a decision to surround himself with the right people, to abandon many of his former friends, and recommit himself to football and his family.

Vick’s reformation began to show prison as an institution capable of positive rehabilitation.  The unfortunate truth about prisons in America is that they have largely failed to prevent acts of recidivism and have failed to initiate programs that allow prisoners to successfully reenter society.  Vick’s story promotes a false narrative about prison as a rehabilitative institution in which Vick has become be the exception, not the rule.  Most inmates obviously do not enter prison as famous athletes or multimillionaires.  Because of Vick’s unique situation, he was able to project what white America wanted to hear: that their institutions of incarceration and rehabilitation helped him cure his illness and that losing millions of dollars and being away from football and his family for two years were simply backdrops to his moral transformation. 

If Vick wins the Super Bowl with the Eagles, it will be one of the greatest sports stories of all-time.  The work that Vick has done to prove his worthiness as a member of society, as a member of the NFL, and as a person of renewed honor is beyond impressive.  The man has worked so hard to become that beastly, futuristic, hybrid quarterback I mentioned earlier.  The only problem is, if Vick wins the Super Bowl with the Eagles, some will point to prison–the place where he was forced to finally stop and reflect on his life, to mature into a man over the course of two years–as the place where Vick began his transformation.  This line of thinking would reinforce prisons as positive institutions in our society and I assure you, they are not.  Prisons remain one of the most inhumane aspects of our society, a place where minorities are locked up at rates expontentially higher than their white counterparts.  The prison industrial complex in America is a profit-driven industry that reinforces State (white) power and spreads fear, social anxiety, and discrimination across every inch of our nation.  Although Vick seems truly reformed by his time in prison, his reformation has much more to do with his celebrity status, the millions of dollars, and the priviledged life style that was suddenly stripped away from him upon his sentence.

Even more, if Vick wins the Super Bowl after being forced to repeatedly denounce the very circumstances that brought him to the Eagles, Vick will become living proof that white people in power know how to effectively deal with and cure black deviance.  Such a result would reinforce the efficacy of our criminal justice system and rather than work on large-scale problems (media bias, racial profiling, discriminatory policing, draconian drug laws) which would help to repair the social conditions that produce illegal or violent behavior, the national discourse will focus on prison as a rehabilitative instituion where criminals can truly achieve moral reformation and refocus on their life goals…like winning the Super Bowl. 

When it comes down to it though, despite the fact that the image of Mike Vick hoisting the Lombardi Trophy would make the criminal justice system look good and despite the fact that it would cast the white people in power who helped Vick return to stardom as successful in their attempts to “cure” black deviance, Vick will still be the one who went through all the motions.  He’s the one giving speeches to young kids about caring for animals and he’s the one throwing touchdown passes every Sunday.  Even if he couldn’t have done it all without the help of others, he still did it, he still made an incredible commitment to achieve excellence in all aspects of his life, to become a better person and a better football player.  The determination he has shown and the commtiment he has made to prove his doubters wrong has been all on him…and it has been inspirational, even moving at times.  Now all he has to do is just win the big one and we’ve got the greatest sports story of all-time.

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2 thoughts on “>Michael Vick: Super Bowl Redemption, At What Cost?

  1. >Nate,Very interesting post. I have to ask, though, can you substantiate some of your claims regarding the white media and those who would have the nation believe that prison has propelled Vick to this current success? I agree with much of what you're proposing, and I would find it illuminating to see some of the source material that has driven you to take this position. Additionally, I was wondering where you thought the criminal justice system fit into the Vick story (i.e. what about the judge who convicted him, his defense, etc.) Thanks for this post, and keep up the good work.

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