Sunday, October 10, 2010

Simmons, Vick and Redemption

Mocking espn.com columnist Bill Simmons is usually the territory of the excellent website Fire Jay Mariotti, but Simmons' latest column, about the resurgence of Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, has bugged me for weeks. So I'm going to take a few swings at it.

Before I take a closer look at Simmons' column, let me say a few things. I'm fine with Michael Vick playing in the NFL after his conviction and prison term on dogfighting-related charges; he's done his time, and if a franchise wants to employ him again, that's their call.

I'm fine with people rooting for Michael Vick; as a friend of mine accurately pointed out, we root for athletes who do thoughtless, cruel things to humans all the time. And I must acknowledge that, post-release, Vick has conducted himself well. I hope that continues.

That said: What I'm not fine with is sportswriters ignoring, minimizing or excusing Vick's substantial crimes.

When you're reading this column, keep the following in mind: Michael Vick financed, set up and helped operate a dogfighting ring. When the dogs didn't perform, Vick or his co-conspirators killed them by hanging and drowning them.

That said, let's plunge into Simmons' column.

My wife overheard me talking about Michael Vick this week. I made the mistake of mentioning how much I enjoyed his recent resurgence. In retrospect, I should have just said that women shouldn't have the right to vote, or that men should be allowed to trade their wives in every six years like cars. She waited for me to hang up, then asked calmly, "What's going on with Michael Vick?"
Oh, boy.
I explained that Vick had won the starting job in Philly, rejuvenated his career and emerged as the feel-good story of the 2010 NFL season. He's been the most valuable player in the league. It looked like a transition year for the Eagles as recently as halftime of Week 1. Now they think they can win the NFC East. All because of him.


I like how Simmons slips in the casual but matter-of-fact line about Vick being the league's most valuable player. Vick has been terrific, but was hardly a slam-dunk for MVP of the first three weeks.

If Vick didn't pay a reasonable price for his sins, it would be one thing. But he torched his career, blew a lucrative contract, went bankrupt, spent 19 months in prison and became a public pariah. That wasn't a reasonable price?

(1) Nobody's saying that they don't support Vick because his prison sentence wasn't long enough, or because he didn't lose enough money. They don't support Vick because he tortured and murdered dogs. (2) The prison part is true enough, but the list of trials Vick has endured is pretty weak. He "torched his career," then returned to the NFL and a quarterback job; he "blew a lucrative contract," but still makes more money in a year most people will see in 10; he become a "public pariah" but still manages to play in front of tens of thousands of cheering fans. Don't make it sound like he's living in the gutter and covered in boils, Bill.

What more do you want? Deny him a chance to make a living? Under what constitutional umbrella?

Again: Very few people are saying Michael Vick shouldn't be allowed by law to play in the NFL; they're just saying they don't want to root for a person who tortured and murdered dogs. Also, I like how denying Vick the chance to play in the NFL would be tantamount to denying him "the chance to make a living," as if he couldn't possibly work at any of the thousands of careers other people do every day.

Yeah, if I spent enough time looking at electrocution photos and rape stand photos, I'd inevitably end up despising him.

Translation: If I actually examined the crimes Vick committed, I wouldn't able to write a long column where I compare him to a character in The Shawshank Redemption! And I have to make that comparison! It has redemption in the title, people!

dogfighting isn't much more abhorrent than some of the other ways we abuse animals .... More of us are hypocrites about this stuff than we realize.

Translation: If you're a hypocrite some of the time, it's OK to be a hypocrite all of the time!

Generations of people grew up with dogfighting in the South (especially in poorer regions), and it's like anything else: Sometimes you don't fully realize something is wrong if you never knew anything else. We cannot ignore the cultural elements here. Not everyone likes dogs or sees them as companions, guardians or family members. I have friends who regard dogs warily and act rattled around them. Certain religions believe dogs are unclean. (I once lived in a West Hollywood neighborhood heavy with Hasidic and Orthodox Jews, some of whom could barely conceal their disgust with the Dooze. A few even hissed at her. This drove my wife crazy, but hey, dogs mean different things to different people.) When Vick's initial comeback was receiving so much attention last summer, I dined with "30 for 30" filmmaker Steve James (a Virginia native like Vick), who wondered if Vick's saga was more racially driven than anyone realized. James grew up with African-Americans who were terrified of dogs because of what happened in the 1960s and earlier, when police frequently used attack dogs to "quell" racial protests. Could a mistrust of dogs be handed down to future generations? Of course. Again, not everyone likes dogs.

Lots of people don't like dogs. Very few of them end up drowning, electrocuting or hanging them. Those Hasidic Jews in Bill's neighborhood may not have liked dogs, but they didn't spend their spare time setting up rape stands, either.

When Vick renounced dogfighting, many people (my wife included) thought he did so because it was the politically correct move. But what if he really did realize it was wrong? Maybe he never grew up with pooches that licked his face and jumped around happily when he came home. Maybe he never played fetch with dogs, took them swimming at special dog beaches, took them hiking or did anything that would humanize them. Had he done any of those things, it would have bothered him as his pit bulls were ripping each other apart. Can I blame him for organizing an illegal underground gambling ring, breaking the law and surrounding himself with the wrong people? Of course.

In other words, Bill wanted to offer a bullshit justification to blunt the impact of Vick's crimes - that they were excusable because some cultures hate dogs. But Bill knew that argument was bullshit, and didn't want to appear to make it himself. So he spent two looooooong paragraphs positing that argument, then in the last two words tried to divorce himself from it so it would seem like he hadn't made it in the first place.

Much like how O.J. Simpson raised awareness about domestic abuse, Vick did the same for animal abuse. Both men did it unwittingly and disgraced themselves in the process, but there's a crucial difference: By continuing his football career, becoming an animal rights activist and repeatedly acknowledging his mistakes, Vick will do more good than harm.

Unless, of course, young people get the message that you can commit grave crimes and, within a few months of release, sportswriters will be praising you if you achieve a high enough quarterback rating and avoid committing any more federal crimes. That could happen, too.

Fair enough. But I believe in second chances for anyone who screwed up because they were immature, came from a poor background or were surrounded by unseemly influences ... as long as that person makes amends. The difference between Vick and LeBron James -- another superstar who hailed from a rough background and tarnished his image, only unlike Vick, he did so without intentionally hurting anyone or breaking the law -- is that LeBron steadfastly refuses to admit his "Decision" was ruinously handled from start to finish. If he had a do-over, he would ram that butcher's knife into Cleveland's back all over again. How do I know this? Because LeBron never jettisoned the sycophants and opportunists who walked him into July's public relations disaster. And because he still doesn't seem to comprehend why so many found "The Decision" so revolting, as evidenced by LeBron playing the race card this week. You know, because we've been so kind to Brett Favre these past two years.

At some point, LeBron will realize his inner circle led him astray. He will clean house, apologize to Cleveland and seem sincere. He will re-examine his Cavaliers tenure, realize how enabled and coddled he was, then wish someone he trusted had looked him in the eye and said, "Look, you can't leave Cleveland this way ... it's wrong." For a variety of reasons, LeBron lived his first 25 years without ever finding such a person. Sometimes you can't shape your life; sometimes your life shapes you. Nobody knows this better than Michael Vick.


(1) Simmons sarcastically implies the media has been mean to Brett Favre over the last two years, which is hilarious, because no athlete in the past decade or so has had his ass kissed more than Favre. (2) Simmons actually uses the word "revolting" to describe LeBron James' TV special announcing which franchise he'd play for next. Huh. LeBron must of thought a lot of people would be interested in that announcement. Hey, Bill - author of a 697-page book in which you call LeBron James the 20th-best player of all time - where do you think he got that idea? (3) I realize he's not comparing their actions directly, but to compare LeBron's error in judgement - which, by the way, was a fundraiser for the Boys' and Girls' Club - to Vick's federal crimes in any way is abhorrent.

Ultimately, Simmons and I would both be happy if Vick conducted the rest of his comeback with good behavior off the field. In that sense, we're both rooting for Vick. The difference is that I'm not trying to excuse what Vick did before that comeback started.