Fall 2009

In Love With Second Chances

The Reinstatement of Michael Vick and What That Says About Us
As a Nation, And I Don't Mean How We Feel About Our Pets

Phil West

August 27, 2009. Passing: 4-for-4, 19 yards. Rushing: One carry, for one yard.

Yes, that’s me starting a column with football statistics, and pretty unspectacular ones at that. But they’re stats that have been anticipated for months, or even years, depending on your perspective. Especially those parts of your perspective that involve a love for dogs, your feelings on masterminds of an interstate crime ring, possibly some race issues, the performance of a backup quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles playing an exhibition game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and certainly the great debatable hypothesis that America is the land of second chances.

That’s right, the Column Train’s just headed into Michael Vick Station.

In an NFL season where much of the attention is consumed by another comeback story – namely, Brett Favre’s inability to retire, and his supplanting of Tarvaris Jackson in Minnesota (and remember this, because we’re making our way back to this in a while) – Vick is by and large THE story.

Simply, Vick transcends football. His trial and subsequent conviction and incarceration certainly transcended football. Through the Vick case when it emerged several years ago, we learned of the horrors of dogfighting – which many of us were blithely oblivious to, at least in as graphic detail as we received via Vick news accounts – as well as learning that there is such thing in 21st Century America as a dogfighting culture. We wondered about Vick being both an African-American male and an elite athlete under suspicion of crime as a high-profile celebrity – like Kobe Bryant and O.J. Simpson before him – and wondered which crass generalization we’d be making based on the verdict.

Now that he’s back in the league for good -- his preseason appearances were conditional, and he'll serve "only" a two-game suspension before his official re-entry in Games That Count for Week Three -- we wonder about whether he has the “right” to earn money, whether that remains a right or a privilege, and whether earning money means you should earn money at what you’re best at, even when what you’re best at is playing a game that attracts literally millions of passionate fans and a number of the largest, most powerful companies in the world who pay significant amounts of endorsement dollars.

Vick’s return has done more than spark debates about entitlement and life after prison. We very nearly saw a PETA vs. NAACP battle in Vick’s new hometown, Philadelphia, which, of course, still maintains that it is the City of Brotherly Love. Not only is PETA vs. NAACP not particularly loving nor brotherly, it is just about as reductive as you can get in debating anything worth debating about Vick.

(Also, in an aside that threatens to be a rant, I loathe PETA. I loathe their monomaniacal approach to their sole issue. I loathe their tactics. About the time they sent their “serves you right” letter to Roy of Siegfried and Roy after the 2003 White Tiger Incident, I became a lifetime member of the “For every animal you don’t eat, I’ll eat three” club. I will stop myself now before this turns into 5,000 words about me hating PETA so much that I’m trying on fur coats.)

What’s key to the story now is not Vick’s conviction on charges stemming from his involvement in dogfighting. That’s the backdrop to the story. Those of us following the story, as well as those of us who couldn’t help following the story, know the rank seaminess uncovered by the indictment, which alleged Vick not only was the prime funder of Bad News Kennelz (yes, with the Z), but directly ordered that underperforming dogs be electrocuted or otherwise executed. The end result of all this was a 23-month prison sentence, which is not terribly short for a crime that didn’t adversely affect another human being, but probably not long enough if you love dogs.

All of us have an opinion about Vick going into this. He’s convicted of arranging for dogs to kill other dogs, so fans of dogfighting could gather to bet illegally on something illegal. Complicating that is that Vick was then, and still is now, a gifted, highly-recognizable athlete playing a sport that many Americans feel very passionate about.

Oh, and he’s African-American. Vick’s recent release from prison also coincides with two other high-profile NFL athletes – who also happen to be African-American – publicly dealing with their own legal troubles and NFL reinstatement issues. New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who illegally took a gun to a New York City nightclub and accidentally shot himself in the leg, is about to start a two-year prison sentence negotiated via plea bargain, and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte Stallworth, who, after serving a month-long prison sentence for a DUI vehicular manslaughter incident (but it was dark outside, and the person he killed was trying to cross a causeway where traffic is 40 mph, which you really shouldn’t be trying to cross), has been suspended from the NFL for at least a year. Assuming that Burress doesn’t have to serve his full two-year sentence, the grim math here is running a federal dogfighting ring > shooting yourself in the leg > running over and killing a pedestrian.

What’s more, a highly-respected African-American coach, Tony Dungy, who recently retired from the Indianapolis Colts, a team best known for its gifted and media-savvy, charming, popular, in-a-thousand-commercials, white quarterback Peyton Manning, sought out Vick while Vick was finishing up his jail term, to provide counsel and to publicly help pave the way for his possible redemption.

It’d be great, by the way, if we didn’t have to focus on race here in post-racial America, but it figures into the conversation particularly where Vick’s concerned, because even though there’s an increasing number of African-American players at the quarterback position, there’s been a longstanding history of a stereotype that the position is “too complex” for African-Americans to play.

It’s a totally offensive stereotype, of course, but it was poignant enough for Flavor Flav, in Public Enemy’s 1988 song “She Watch Channel Zero,” to comment, “We’ve got a black quarterback, so step back,” in response to Doug Williams’ Super Bowl XXII appearance earlier that year, when he led the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl victory. Williams remains, in 40-plus years of Super Bowl history, the only African-American quarterback to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory.

While Williams is certainly known for that, he’s also tied to an incredible urban legend that highlights the puzzle that is the African-American quarterback in the National Football League. Reporter Butch John with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, observing that Williams had been a black quarterback all his life, asked Williams a reasonable question about when race began to matter. But because Williams misheard the question, he responded with, “Wait, how long have I been a black quarterback?” From that, urban legend holds that John asked Williams, “How long have you been a black quarterback?” Even though he didn’t.

And now that one of the league’s better teams, the Philadelphia Eagles, picked Vick up (which was a surprise move to football experts projecting where Vick would end up – and note, it was never a possibility that an athlete of Vick’s caliber would not be picked up), Vick will be making his comeback on a team that has an aging but still gifted, popular, African-American quarterback in Donovan McNabb, who has already voiced to the media, one preseason game in, that Vick’s presence, albeit for only six plays, disrupted his rhythm, leading to a possible preview of one of the sports media’s favorite concoctions, the quarterback controversy, in which a team is supposedly wrenched with agony over the decision of which quarterback should lead the team.

Oh, one more thing – as the ESPN article on the August 27 Philadelphia-Jacksonville game noted:

“It was a long day for Vick. He traveled to Virginia early Thursday, where a federal judge approved his six-year plan to repay creditors $20 million and emerge from bankruptcy, and then hustled out of court to return to Philadelphia for the game.”

So, this is all fairly fraught with tension.

And, yet, for many observers who acknowledge that Vick has done a terrible thing, Vick’s comeback intrigues them. They hope he succeeds. Radio talk show host Dan Patrick recently said on his show, “Once he gets out on the field, it becomes just a football story to me.”

It’s not, of course. Certainly, Vick and those in his camp would hope that the tensions around race and crime and supplanting popular leaders would just melt away into touchdown celebrations and cheering crowds.

We’re fascinated with second chances, especially when we can see them play out in tangible ways. A second chance when someone is released from prison into the real world is certainly harder to gauge. That person has to find employment, blend back into society, and probably hopes for anonymity and a decent living rather than becoming another in a series of recidivism statistics.

For Vick, it’s a little more complicated, because there’s no way he’ll ever be able to achieve anonymity, and the employment’s he’s finding pays in millions rather than thousands, and plays out on national telecasts. One of the debates surrounding Vick has to do with whether he has the “right” to play football again. If the league reinstates him, as it has conditionally done, he certainly has the “right.” But implied in this debate is whether Vick, he of the horrible things done to dogs, deserves the attention of and adulation from football fans that donning a uniform gives him access to.

In short, to some, cheering a dogkiller is galling.

And even before the dogfighting controversy, Vick was already in the public eye for alleged questionable behavior and judgment, including an early 2007 incident at Miami International Airport, where he was suspected of trying to transport marijuana, in a special water bottle, through airport security. The charges were soon dropped, but not before Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler gave it this treatment on Saturday Night Live:

Seth Meyers: Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick surrendered a water bottle to security at MiamiInternationalAirport, Thursday, that smelled like marijuana. Vick was stopped by security, cut left, broke a tackle, and was finally brought down after gaining 22 yards.

Michael Vick's alleged attempt to bring marijuana onto a plane raises many questions. Questions we will now address in a new segment on "Weekend Update," called "Really?!? with Seth & Amy."

[ show title card ]

[ dissolve back to Amy and Seth at the desk ]

Seth Meyers: Michael Vick? Really?!? You didn't want to throw your weed away before you went through security? Really?!? You have 117 million dollars left on your contract. Do you know what 117 million dollars means? You can afford to replace your weed if you have to throw it away at the airport. [ audience cheers ] Really! Even my dumbest high school friends know to throw their weed away at the airport, and they have NO MONEY and LOVE weed!

Amy Poehler: And you got caught at the Miami Airport? Really? You didn't think they would check for drugs at the airport in Miami? Really?!?

Seth Meyers: And, also, I don't know if you've heard, but you can't bring bottled water past security any more. So you hid your weed -- which is not allowed on a plane -- in another thing that is not allowed on a plane. [ audience cheers ] That's like hiding your weed in the barrel of a gun or in the mouth of an endangered species. Really?

Amy Poehler: Really? And it never occurred to you to put it in a Ziploc bag and sink it to the bottom of a shampoo bottle in your checked luggage, like we all do? Really?!?"

Seth Meyers: And, Michael Vick, do you not have an entourage? Really?!? Because you should put together an entourage, and the first guy in that entourage should be called "Michael Vick's Official Weed Carrier." Really!

Amy Poehler: A-and, also -- you were flying back to Atlanta. Where you live. Do you not keep weed at your house? Really?!? Because, if you like weed, you should have some at your house. Really! [ audience cheers ]

Seth Meyers: Really! So, really, Michael Vick, throw your weed away. I know you're a running quarterback, but throw.. it.. away! Really!

Amy Poehler: Wow!

Seth Meyers: Wow!

[ show title card ]

Announcer: This has been "Really?!? with Seth & Amy."

To some, it’s unconscionable to not give a second chance to someone who has “done his time” and “paid his debt to society” — phrases we use to convince ourselves that the judicial system creates fair, equitable, appropriate punishment, even when looking at equations like killing dogs > shooting yourself > killing someone with your car while drunk.

And Vick’s return might not even be the most controversial second chance story involving a NFL quarterback this summer, from a purely football standpoint. (Clearly, from an everything standpoint, Vick still wins.) For anyone not familiar with the Brett Favre saga – Favre is a veteran, charismatic, Super Bowl-winning quarterback, by the way – it can summed up thusly: I am retiring from football. No, I’m not. Wait, yes, I am. Wait, no I’m not. In the last two years, Favre retired from his longtime team, the Green Bay Packers, decided to return to football, wanted to return to the Packers, who basically didn’t want him, and joined the New York Jets, had an average season playing for what turned out to be an average team (as registered in self-flagellating headlines from the New York Post), retired, flirted with the Minnesota Vikings for a good part of the summer before announcing that he was definitely staying retired, and then, several weeks ago, once training camp had wrapped up and preseason games were starting, announced that he was joining the Vikings after all. In the initial press conference, he referred to head coach Brad Childress as “Chilly,” suggesting a familiarity that didn’t exactly instill public confidence in Childress’ ability to handle the percolating situation.

You see, to continue on the theme of race and quarterbacks and general uneasiness, Favre is a white quarterback supplanting an African-American quarterback, Tarvaris Jackson, who has been inconsistent in his pro career so far, but to his credit, knows the Vikings’ offense, and performed reasonably well in the same preseason game in which Favre debuted and summarily “was rusty” (if you’re a Favre fan) or “stunk up the joint” (if you’re a Jackson fan). And now, according to at least one report, there is a “schism” in the Vikings’ locker room over who should be quarterback. (“Schism” is the actual word being used.)

Talk show hosts around the country, as you might expect, are advancing their theories that the Favre and Jackson camps are largely dividing along racial lines in the Vikings’ locker room. Performance-wise, based on past and current data, Favre can be brilliant or abhorrent, while Jackson can be serviceable or abhorrent, with a much lower ceiling than Favre. Jackson is also much younger, and has been with the team his entire three years in the league. Favre, at this writing at the end of August, has been with the team two weeks.

Yet, for those of us addicted to second chances, Favre’s latest comeback is either an enticing story about a 39-year-old veteran who loves football too much to leave it, or it’s a crass corruption of the second chance narrative, because he’s selfishly wrenching it from a situation that doesn’t really merit a second chance narrative (“Guy Can’t Leave Job”), rather than having the opportunity handed to him by a universe that beatifically and selectively dispenses the chance for redemption.

Redemption is certainly possible in pro sports, and when crimes or alleged crimes are involved, the ultimate redemption is people acting as if the crimes or alleged crimes never happened. When the Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Championship earlier this year, sportswriters and commentators discussed Kobe Bryant’s emergence as a leader, the fulfillment of his longtime quest to win a title without former teammate Shaquille O’Neal, and a number of other subplots involving the roles of other Lakers players vis a vis Bryant. What wasn’t discussed was Bryant’s well-publicized rape case in 2003.

Six years after allegations that appear to have been unfounded (but we’ll never really know), in a case that never went to trial because the woman making the allegations refused to testify in court, Bryant appears to have the sort of retribution he hoped for – if not a collective amnesia about the allegations of what happened in a Eagle, Colo. hotel room, at least enough of a dismissal to where our immediate associations with Bryant involve purely basketball matters.

In the interim, Bryant’s only had to weather a controversy around the Lakers choosing him over O’Neal  (essentially, because the team was not able to pay both of them maximum money and build a decent team around them), be one of the best players in the league for years, go on a particularly good PR run in the 2008 Olympics, and be the prime beneficiary of a ridiculously one-sided trade giving him the perfect championship-run sidekick in Spaniard Pau Gasol – which had additional PR benefits in that it revealed Bryant’s love for Spanish soccer powerhouse FC Barcelona, adding to the mystique of Bryant as a multilingual sophisticate that made him intriguing to fans when he first entered the league, pre-spoiled star baggage and certainly pre-rape allegations baggage.

Will Vick be so lucky? He did get a standing ovation from the Philadelphia crowd the first time he went into the first preseason game, and after he was done for the evening, the crowd chanted, “We want Vick!” Whether that’s sincere adulation or a “Give us Barabbas”-style yearning for further spectacle is unclear. Some might say chanting "We want Vick" is perfectly indicative of a fan base who once booed Santa Claus (though, to be fair, the booing may have been because it was an inferior Santa Claus).

But if someone as media-savvy and talented as Bryant had to endure six years of reputation purgatory and had to win an NBA championship to shed himself of that, then who knows how long it will take Vick to overcome the dogfighting onus. While not quite O.J. Simpson on the scale of athletes gone wrong, the initial challenge for Vick will be to have people look at him and not think “dogkiller.” That, in fact, may never not happen. What more likely is going to have to happen will be a time + winning + redemption/land of second chances narrative. Certainly, Vick will have to maximize whatever time he has remaining on the field to chip away at his $20M in debts and possibly stockpile for the future. Clearly, endorsement deals and invitations to the broadcast booth upon retirement are not forthcoming.

But to the immediate questions: Will he succeed on the football field? Will there be a quarterback controversy for the Eagles? How will be received the first time he steps onto the field in an opponent’s stadium? Will those fans bark like dogs in an attempt to rattle him? Will this register as clever or classless? If the Eagles make the Super Bowl this year, how much of the five hours of pre-game hype will be apportioned to Vick? Who will dare to buy a Vick replica jersey?

We care because second chance stories speak to us. Even in a recession, where the salaries of professional athletes create more of a disconnect with most of us than usual, the second chance story – especially in Vick’s case – speaks to the potential to make another run at success no matter how spectacularly we fail.

Though my Monday morning happiness is not tied to the fortunes of the Philadephia Eagles, and certainly not to whether Vick finds redemption, I’m exponentially more interested in Eagles games this year as compared to past years. And how could I not be? Sports, after all, is unscripted drama when it’s at its best, and Vick provides several layers of gravitas beyond what sports is typically capable of providing. And I believe our reactions to Vick’s success or failure will say more about us as a people – and the levels of forgiveness we’re capable of, if you can call it forgiveness -- than any other athlete’s trajectory this year. Really, how could it not?