Michael Vick: The American Dream

Michael Vick: The American Dream
24 Sep 2010

It began with a concussion to the Philadelphia starter, and the Eagles trailing 13-3. He entered the game, and suddenly, a team that’d been lifeless for two quarters had a little jump in their step. The Eagles lost, but the electricity he created resonated regardless, prompting fans to call for him to be named the starter for the next game.

The starter was still hurt, of course. The highest profile concussion in the NFL at a time when sensitivity toward that particular injury is at an all-time high. So the fans got their wish.

And again, the backup played well in relief, scrambling all over the field, making plays with his arm and legs. And just his presence. With him in the game, the Eagles seem like a different, more dangerous team. So much so that even the coach, who’d staked his future on the starting quarterback just a few months earlier, had to give in and give the backup a shot, naming him Philadelphia’s new starting quarterback.

He is Michael Vick, and in case you haven’t heard, he’s a had a pretty good two weeks.

But of course you’ve heard, because he is Michael Vick.

Take out the names, and it’s just an ordinary story that happens all the time in professional sports. But Michael Vick makes it something different. He’s the most polarizing player in the most popular sport in America. Of course you’ve heard. A friend of mine who knows nothing about sports approached me earlier this week.

“So I listen to these NPR podcasts on the way to work,” he said. “And today they started talking about that guy Michael Vick. He’s playing again apparently? What do you think about that?”

Well, that requires a longer conversation.

Vick began his career in 1999 as the preternaturally gifted prodigy of the Next Generation. He’s pictured above with his lawyer, Billy Martin, on the way into federal court in 2007, where he’d eventually be sentenced to 23 months in prison for his role in a dogfighting ring that stretched across multiple states, operated for a number years, and claimed the lives of hundreds of dogs who died “fighting” in the ring or were executed thereafter.

So, it’s not quite the typical Gehrig-Pip narrative. And we’ll get to the prison part, but just as important to this story is Vick, the Prodigy. It began in 1999. Or 1998, according to ESPN Magazine’s Bruce Feldman, profiling Vick two years later:

he profile continues, with Feldman playing right along with rest of the media back then, deifying this 20-year-old kid for his exploits on the football field. After exploding onto the scene as redshirt freshman in 1999, Vick’s star hit an all-time high in the summer of 2000, before his final year at Virginia Tech.

Sports Illustrated explained “Why Michael Vick has sparked a revolution at quarterback” in a cover story that dubbed him Mr. Electric. “Michael Vick is the future,” one NFL GM told Feldman and ESPN. “His legs and his ability to escape trouble will not only beat defenses, it will demoralize them.” And not one person in America would have disagreed with that sentiment. I mean, there wasn’t an ounce of skepticism.

Vick was the future that we’d all been dreaming about. The video game player you create just out of curiosity… What would be like if a player had running back speed with the strongest arm in football, and enough accuracy to nail halfcourt shots with a football? What would that even look like?

Michael Vick was our answer. “His timing is perfect,” wrote Feldman. “He leaps onto the stage just as hip-hop culture collides with extreme.” And we all worshiped him for it. Michael Vick was the American Dream wrapped in the promise of the American Future. Doubt him today, went the rhetoric, and you’ll be a convert by tomorrow.

But there were two problems. First, Vick could never catch up to the myth he created with that first season in Blacksburg. That year, teams game-planned for a week and found themselves blindsided on Saturday. The following season, teams had been game-planning for a year, and they still couldn’t stop him, but they at least rendered him human. In the summer of 2000, Michael Vick was an idea. In the fall of 2000, he was just a really great player, trying every day to live up to that idea. But he wasn’t perfect. That was problem number one.

Second, and more importantly, this is America, a country borne from revolution but built on rigorous adherence to the traditions set forth by our forefathers. It’s an ideology that trickles down in everything we do. Americans like the idea of the future, but by and large, we’re far more enticed by the ideals of the past. And as Vick continued to fall short of this grand vision for the perfect quarterback of the future, the rhetoric began to engender resentment.

The idea of Vick that we’d created when he was in college endured as he turned pro, but he was no match for the ideal that we returned to whenever we measured his progress. He ran when he should have thrown. He wore a visor and played with gloves. He grew cornrows and played in a skull cap. He didn’t “lead his team.”

He was Mike Vick when we wanted Steve Young, but black, faster, and with a stronger arm.

So as the years passed, the unanimous approval that he encountered in 2000 began to fade. There was resentment, cynicism, and general weariness with the whole, “Can Mike Vick finally fulfill his potential?” question that peppered pregame shows for his entire career. Of course he couldn’t fulfill his potential—his potential was nothing less than the greatest, most dynamic football player in human history. Who can live that fantasy?

That wasn’t our answer, of course. He lacked the maturity, we said, and didn’t have the intangibles necessary to succeed at the pro level. He couldn’t read defenses, and his feel for the game would never measure up to the best quarterbacks in football. Millions of fans still adored him, but over the course of his years in the NFL, his star changed from that of the All-American Hero that would guide us into the next generation of football, to a counter-cultural hero that refused to compromise for the Establishment.

In reality, he was an undersized quarterback that could make breathtaking plays with his feet, throw a perfect 60-yard pass with the flick of his wrist, and then gun an 8-yard out pass 80 mph for an incompletion. On third down. To kill a drive and lose a game. Then he’d get caught with weed the next offseason. He was great in some ways, but there were tangible flaws that prompted a lot of people to reject him altogether. Part of a counter to the counter-cultural stuff. Then the dogfighting scandal hit, the floodgates opened, and all hell broke loose.

Everyone that’d ever silently resented Vick could now come right out and say it, “What a thug.”

Just like that, in the minds of the traditionalists that’d grown to resent him anyway, Vick went from a football player that had long been given the benefit of the doubt to a felon that’d disgraced himself, his sport, and society, in general. Benefit of the doubt? For a while there, you got the sense that Vick was just lucky to be left breathing. He’d emerged as everything that was great about the future of sports, but in the minds of most fans, he became everything that’s wrong with the present.

And everyone responded in kind. First, it was the U.S. Federal Court. After Vick pleaded guilty to his crimes and paid nearly a million dollars to help care for the dogs that’d been victimized by his crimes, the court exceeded the punishment suggested by the prosecution, issuing Vick 23 months in federal prison.

Then it was Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner that Vick lied to during the initial investigations concerning dogfighting. Even after Vick had missed two NFL seasons, forfeited nearly $100 million in earnings, filed for bankruptcy, and become an outspoken advocate for animal rights, Goodell greeted Vick with a suspension when he sought a return to the NFL. Because a message had to be sent, and Vick’s phenomenal personal disgrace apparently wasn’t enough.

But even now, after the message has been sent and Vick’s name and character has been destroyed, Vick’s still fighting those resentments, and the people convinced of not just guilt, but fundamentally flawed character. And it’s not surprising; a lot of people resented him before any this, and now, he’s forfeited the right to any reasonable judgment among the mainstream, and has to live with people like Mike Florio at Pro Football Talk, just waiting for his next misstep. Like this summer, when a man was shot outside Vick’s birthday party in Virginia Beach. As Florio sneered in the aftermath, “apparently, one of the games was pin the tail on the donkey. With bullets.”

And even as the investigation proceeded and police were unable to make a connection to Vick or prosecute anyone regarding the crime, the skepticism continued:

In other words, even though the police had no reason to implicate Vick, they’re doing him a favor by not prosecuting anyone. And by not releasing the name of the shooter, they’re robbing the media of the chance to circumstantially indict him on their own. How charitable of them! But it didn’t stop there.

After false reports surfaced that the Eagles would be cutting ties with Vick in light of the incident (where he was found to be 100% innocent), the team went public with a statement proclaiming their loyalty to Vick, reaffirming their belief in his innocence, and reiterating a shared commitment to a bright future together. Of course, Florio was reading between the lines, as he wrote, “logic leads us to conclude that the Eagles are trying to control the bleeding on this one by characterizing Vick in a positive light, possibly in the hopes of unloading him via a trade.”

It’s this sort of zealotry that Vick’s been dealing with ever since the dogfighting investigation began. If you look at it from a simplistic perspective, then yeah, it’s all fair-and-square. Vick created this reality for himself, and he should have to deal with whatever consequences come his way. But then, that perspective ignores context.

The torrent of criticism and cynicism dwarfs the reactions to Leonard Little and Dante Stallworth, two men that killed people driving under the influence. The presumed depravity strikes an ironic chord when viewed alongside rape allegations toward superstars like Kobe Bryant and Ben Roethlisberger, both of whom have been granted the media’s permission to begin on a course toward redemption and maturation. For Vick, though, the resentment remains.

Granted, the latter examples were found innocent, but that’s partly because rape is a thousand times more difficult to prosecute. Regardless, though, the difference in reaction is tonal as much as tangible; we decried the athletes above for a lapse in judgment, but we crucified Vick for what we perceived as an evil soul. So now, even as Vick prepares to make it all the way back, there are still those who insist on undercutting his narrative with reminders of his crimes, and the fundamental depravity therein.

As the excellent Bruce Arthur wrote this week, “We’re used to appreciating acts of kinetic beauty, as the author David Foster Wallace put it, even if they’re performed by people we suspect to be, or even know to be, monsters.” He continued on, discussing this culture’s propensity for amnesia when it comes to the sins of our heroes, saying of Vick’s second NFL life, “The machine must be fed, even if it’s with the carcasses of animals, left to rot.”

So let’s talk about dogfighting. If some are worried that we’re forgetting the inhumanity of Michael Vick’s crimes, then let’s give it one last treatment here. Because the machine must be fed, and for some, that means conjuring the images of dead animals to shock us into agreement.

And not to steal Bruce’s thunder here, but the topic of Michael Vick’s dogfighting reminds me of a different David Foster Wallace passage. One from Wallace’s visit to the Illinois State Fair, where he encounters a cattle show, and observes the following scene:

We’re in the Jr. Livestock Center. The ring of cows moves around the perimeter of the dirt circle, each led by an ag-family kid. The “Jr.” apparently refers to the owners, not the animals. Each cow’s kid holds a long poker with a right-angled tooth at its end and prods the cow into the center of the ring to move in a tighter circle.

…Some of the cows look drugged. Maybe they’re just superbly trained. You can imagine these kids getting up so early they can see their breath and leading their cows in practice circles under the cold stars, then having to do their chores. I feel good in here. The cows all have colored ribbons on their tails. They are shampooed and mild-eyed and lovely, incontinence notwithstanding. They are also assets.

Now, imagine those kids and how they look at those cows.

Then imagine yourself, and how you look at cows.

Chances are, most Americans view cows only from a distance. As some foreign beast that smells up various stretches of rural roads, produces our milk, and eventually, in some faraway land, turns into a steak dinner. They live their lives beyond our eyes, and they meet their demise in some dark corner, far from our consciousness. A natural part of the sophisticated, wealthy society that we call “life.”

But to the young boys, the ones prodding the cows around and doing their best not to misstep in front of the officials, cows are something different. They’re an immediate concern, and a part of daily life—keeping them healthy, well-fed, and looking good at the Illinois State Fair. The young boys clean up the manure that we breeze by as we pass through rural America. And while the colored ribbons and shampooed coats catch our eyes, the young boy is hoping to catch the attention of the McDonald’s buyer in the crowd, because they pay more than Burger King or White Castle.

The lesson is obvious, I think, but it’s one that’s eluded a vast majority of the columnists and pundits that still insist on calling Michael Vick inhumane and depraved. Our understanding of animals is relative.

So that judging dogfighting has nothing to do with how you value the life of a dog. It’s about sociology, and understanding that in different places, different animals mean different things. For someone like me, who grew up with two dogs and projected human qualities on them for my entire life, dogfighting is unimaginable. The thought of using them for sport and disposing of them afterward… It produces a physical shiver.

But if I’d grown up in a place where dogfighting was a regular occurrence, I suspect I’d feel that sensitivity would disappear. In the same way I see a cow and have no idea what to do or how to interact, but a midwestern farmer sees a cow and knows to feed it and care for it, so that one day that cow can be sold and brutally slaughtered.

We understand animals differently, and for someone like Vick, dogfighting wasn’t foreign and barbaric. It’s a disturbing notion, and indeed, the culture of dogfighting indicates a callous, ignorant slice of society. But it’s ignorannce, not evil. And for all the rhetoric we’ve heard about Vick’s inhumanity and inhumanity of his crimes, it’s sort of ass backwards.

Ultimately, demonizing Michael Vick demands a willful disregard for understanding humans. How we behave, and why in some places, that behavior deviates from the accepted norms of a sophisticated society. Dogs aren’t meant to be fought, we say.

But in backwater Virginia, clearly, nobody got the memo about respecting animal rights. And a few hundred miles away, on the racetracks in Kentucky, they’re still racing horses every weekend, euthanizing the ones that pull up lame. So wait a second: Who sets the standard? Why don’t all these angry sportswriters have a problem with the Kentucky Derby?

I’m not advocating dogfighting here, but horse racing’s mentioned as an instructive example. If we’re going to talk about Vick’s crimes, it’s a conversation that requires a far more nuanced outlook than most of us are ready to dedicate to this.

He’s not evil, and in his eyes, he wasn’t committing this grave transgression against decency. Should he have known better? Of course I think so, but I’ve never even seen a dog fight, let alone grown up in a society where they’re accepted.

Ultimately, Vick didn’t rape anyone, he didn’t kill anyone, and he’s not some terrible evil monster. He was guilty of having a perverse understanding of dogs as a vehicle for entertainment and sport. He had the money to fund this entertainment, and the friends to prod him along if doubt ever crept in. That earned him six felony charges and nearly two years imprisonment, theoretically teaching him the lesson that didn’t get through when he was growing up in Newport News: dogfighting’s horrible.


Today, Michael Vick’s story embodies the worst aspects of our society. The great lesson from this ordeal speaks to the dangers of crowd mentalities, and the cruelty that occurs when everyone decides to disregard reason. Crowd-sourcing one’s moral compass is never a good thing. Of course, the lesson’s illustrated twice in this case:

  1. Michael Vick never should have embraced dogfighting, inheriting the heinous behaviors of peers, and embracing something that nearly cost him the world.
  2. We never should have crucified Vick the way we did, treating him as something less than human, and robbing him of the right to reason and fairness in our judgment.

Indeed, about the only time you’ll hear someone like Rush Limbaugh and a PETA protester agree on anything is when one of them cries out, “Michael Vick is a monster!” And they’re all wrong, viewing the world through the same childish lens, wasting everyone’s time. It’s what I hate about America.

But that’s Vick’s story. Something that requires far more context for explanation.

Vick the character, the football player who’s about to make it all the way back this weekend—he teaches a different lesson, and it’s more simple. It’s something I love about America. From him we learn that in this country, you can make a mistake, and there’s infrastructure in place that can help you survive. Even if that mistake makes you the target of a massive angry mob.

However big the angry crowd, you can usually get a second chance in America.

And in a world where everybody makes mistakes, where we all carry skewed perspectives that lead us to dark places, that’s a very good thing. So here’s to hoping that the backup-turned-starter beats the hell out Jacksonville this weekend and keeps on going, all the way to the Super Bowl. Because he can. It’s one of the things that makes this country great.