Does Vick Deserve Redemption?
By Staff News & Analysis - September 22, 2010

Question: I've listened to you for awhile and you seemed to be a fair and honest reporter…But [not] after hearing you say, "I can't like Vick (left) as a QB because of his past." I thought as a reporter you should not give your feelings to the public on issues [like that]…That's not your job. Your job is to report the game on the field. For the first time, I did not watch Post Game Live on Comcast. You've lost a fan for life. … Answer: I'm sorry you feel that way, Andre, but I must correct you … If you heard (or read) any of my comments the past two weeks, you would see that I've done nothing but praise the way Vick played … Just don't ask me to join the chorus of those who would make this into some kind of feel-good comeback story. Mike Vick didn't miss two seasons because of a terrible injury or a personal tragedy. He didn't spend two years in the Peace Corps. He was sent to prison for his involvement in dog fighting, a sadistic criminal activity, one he engaged in for at least four years. – Sports Reporter/CNS

Dominant Social Theme: Vick redeems himself as a QB, but he's still a bad person.

Free-Market Analysis: We've watched the Michael Vick story unfold with some fascination. It tends to confirm what we think about sports reporters in general, that they exaggerate every single wrongheaded characteristic of mainstream reporters. This stands to reason after all; it takes a certain kind of ambition and personality to spend one's life "reporting" about the success and failures of large men and muscular women playing games. The dominant sub theme might be, "Sports reflects the glory and tragedy of life, and we appreciate it with the same passion as those that strive within the emerald square."

Of course this isn't quite true. Sport is often pedestrian, and the writing even moreso. Journalism in general does not inspire poetics but what is disturbing generally throughout the West and certainly in America is the level of acquiescence to state narratives. Sports, generally, are to be seen as condensed metaphors for governments and markets. Just as the market itself cannot run without guidance, so sports needs referees. This is why sports are so beloved by authoritarian regimes. Nothing needs to be said. A game is a condensed instruction manual for how government ought to relate to society – as the wise and just arbitrator.

Of course while it may work that way in sports, it surely does not in the larger field of life. As always, when one travels from metaphor to life, reality intrudes. In life, politicians are greedy, the elite that organizes society is cunning and merciless and the rules are not meant to encourage a fair game but to ensure, for the most part, that one does upset the social order or inconvenience one's betters.

Sports reporters evince little of this reality, however. Mainstream reporters use cliches with the same enthusiasm that they avoid questioning the fear-based promotions of the elite. Sports reporters take this to the extreme; they seem to positively revel in moral and intellectual certitude. Whether it is heaping scorn on those who take "performance enhancing drugs" or pillorying Michael Vick for supporting dog-fighting and gambling, one looks in vain for anything other than pedestrian smugness when it comes to this sort of reporting.

And thus it is that while football fans throughout America seem to have been transfixed by the current comeback of Michael Vick, the sports establishment itself, including the coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and sports-writers around the country seem considerably less enthused. It is somewhat funny to read, almost invariably in their dispatches, that their peers are "celebrating" Vick's comeback while they cannot. In fact, one can read hundreds of sports-related articles on Michael Vick and very few come anywhere near sounding enthusiastic.

Yet it is a dramatic story. A young African-American from an impoverished past becomes perhaps the biggest star in the biggest sport in America and then loses it all because of dog-fighting. He is even sent to jail for nearly two years in the middle of his career and then has a great deal of trouble finding a team that will accept him after his incarceration. Finally, the Philadelphia Eagles offer him a contract and show him a little bit of playing time in 2009.

But here comes 2010 and suddenly the anointed quarterback goes down with a concussion and Michael Vick sets the football world on fire with his running and passing. He is perhaps much better than before his incarceration because he has learned to pass first and run only as a last resort. But run he does, and no one runs much better than Vick in the open field. He's not just a "natural" – he's a sports prodigy and at 30 seems to be playing better than he was at 25.

Vick has served nearly two years in jail – in the middle of his sports career – and forfeited a US$90 million contract besides. He declared bankruptcy and much of his paycheck is diverted to creditors. Yet he has persevered and now, in his 30th year, is again perhaps the premier talent in America's biggest game. But, as we pointed above, you would never know it from the reporting.

Much of the reporting is grudging, dredging up Vick's dog-fighting operation and his electrocution of dogs, and generally the brutal way he related to the animals that he raised to fight. Lost in the reporting from our point of view is Vick's background, which included dog fighting, and the general tendency of people from certain socio-economic milieus to entertain themselves by pitting animals against one another.

Whether it is bull-fighting in Spain, bear-baiting in Victorian England or cock-fighting in various Hispanic regions, especially, people use animals for violent sport. And often when they are not egging on animals, they are encouraging little boys to fight one another. It is neither nice nor fair; in fact it is often gruesome and even tragic. Certainly, someone with any level of empathy cannot endorse Vick's actions. But it takes a special country to imprison its leading sportsperson for two years for such practices, and then to bankrupt him.

Why did Vick go to jail? One could make a legitimate case for a certain kind of subdued racism. Vick was a leading black quarterback, but he was cockier – and better – than most. And he himself will admit that he did not provide an earnest effort but "coasted" on his considerable talent. But for whatever reason, he ended up in jail and even now, two years later, many in the sports-writing community find it hard to forgive him.

Sanctimoniousness and hypocrisy are spread thickly about this story. The same sportswriters that still cannot find it in their collective breast to forgive Michael Vick are very likely meat-eaters; it is certainly well-known that animals raised for harvesting in the United States subsist under terrible and even tortuous conditions. But we don't see a great deal of enthusiasm for investigating US animal farming. Apparently one can eat animals raised in considerable agony – but one cannot pit them against each other.

The same point can be made about performance enhancing drugs – as we have pointed out in the past. There is plenty of inequality when it comes to sports. Some athletes are simply more gifted than others; and some grow up in places where they have access to better nutrition and training, including vitamins and state-of-the-art exercise machines. But Western sports-writers tend to see none of this. With a pack-like mentality they announce in chorus that taking performance-enhancing drugs is WRONG. Again, there is no sense that these individuals have examined their conclusions.

As with so many "celebrities," (Martha Stewart comes to mind) Vick was punished in our view to provide the masses with a spectacle of fairness. "Justice was served," sports-scribes penned mindlessly and Vick "paid his debt to society" – though how incarcerating a grown man at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars reduces said debt is at least questionable in our opinion.

Note: As this article was being posted, Vick was suddenly named the starting QB by the Eagles' head coach who had firmly maintained that Vick was not and never would be the team's starter. Given this sudden turn of events, perhaps today's batch of articles will be kinder to Vick than ones penned in the recent past …

After Thoughts

That was not the point. The point was the exercise itself – one of putting a top athlete in jail during the prime of his career. Vick claims to have grown as a result. One wishes that one could say the same of the American system of jurisprudence or the writers who mindlessly celebrate the ever-increasing criminalization of Western sports.