Monday, July 20, 2009

Vick Post

This Michael Vick thing is just strange. OK, fine, this column is about 18 months late, and it's already been said. Still, I felt, given his release from federal custody today, it needed to be said again.

Michael Vick, the pro-bowl quarterback broke the law. His crimes were perhaps vicious and immoral, and he deserved to be punished. But the gravity of his penance, as well as an extremely vitriolic somewhat baffling public outcry against Vick are disproportionate to the crime, as well as uncharacteristically unforgiving and that needs to be mentioned.

There are several issues at play here, and while most of them have already been mentioned, refuted, and argued over and again, I will bring up several that I feel most relevant.

The issue of race is implicit and obvious. Many commentators have argued that Vick's actions, independent of the color of his skin, were gruesome and ugly, and any punishment or response dumped upon Vick are both valid and deserved. This argument may or may not be true, but it simply doesn't entirely remove the issue of race from the events and response. For one, you have hundreds of white, southern sympathizers, protesting on the stairs to the court in the capital of the confederacy. Grandchildren of anti-segregationist Virginians hanging a highly visible black American in effigy. I'm sorry to those of you who feel we live in a colorless society, but these images are racial.

Furthermore, you have his punishment. I am not a legal expert, and I have little-to-no background in the coverage of the law, but I get the feeling that a middle-class white American of a similar age to Vick (e.g. ME) would not have been given twenty-three months in a federal penitentiary for the unlawful treatment of animals. Again, this is BY NO MEANS, a justification or defense for what he did, nor do I have a problem with the NFL's handling of the issue, but it simply unfathomable that a middle-class white male would be treated the same as a rich black man in the South.

Another less discussed issue, but perhaps more temporally relevant, is the archetypal criminality embedded in the perception of young, black athletes in the last fifteen-to-twenty years. This is not an overall defense of the Pacman Jones's, Ron Artests, or Vicks at all. It would be incredibly hard to defend the actions of some of sports' most visible knuckleheads, but there is something to be said about the vast criminalization and vilifying perception of several athletes simply because laws were broken. People break laws, they pay their punishment and they get on with their lives. We all have friends or relatives with DUIs, we have friends with illegitimate children, friends who have gotten into fights, gotten to drunk to stand, got busted with marijuana. Sure, these actions are illegal and deserve the attention of the judicial system, but an athlete, and in particular a young black athlete, commits these crimes, and they are immediately cast as part of a much bigger problem.

It is a case of high-profile paternalism in which society's biggest detriments are the incredibly small slice of the adult community that is, at one, young, black, and unworldly gifted at either running, catching, or throwing. As if Vick's actions, vile as they were, are a microcosm for the decay of the moral fabric as a result of handing over large chunks of money to people who don't know how to make choices. Athletes, as opposed to all of our friends mentioned above, are guilty of "biting the hand that feeds them," and, perhaps this crime is what they are truly paying for.

Much has been made about Vick's inhumane treatment of animals. Last time I checked, soon-to-be-ex Governor Palin shoots dogs from a helicopter and former Vice President Cheney shoots people in the face with shotguns. The game of football itself, arguably the nation's most popular sport, is an weekly inhumane display of masculinity and violence that has resulted in paralyzed athletes, and most likely has contributed to the early death of many players. The point not being a defense of Vick, but how interesting the perspective changes when an athlete and the law become entangled.

I don't see Vick returning to the league successfully, and I don't blame any team for having anxiety over signing him. He is a villain, a criminal, and, in the eyes of far too many Americans, part of a bigger problem. But the crime Vick is most guilty of committing, is perhaps his status as a highly visible, young black athlete who had a run-in with the law. That…is the bigger problem.

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