|The Ultimate World Cup of Hockey Preview||LeBron James: A Performance for the Ages||RIP Muhammad Ali: The GOAT||Steph and the Warriors came out to play|
There are days when I want to take ths standard position during a discussion about Philadelphia Eagles QB Michael Vick. I want to opine that regardless of his 21-month incarceration in a federal penetentiary, his seemingly genuine remorse about his past, or how he chooses to spend the rest of his life, Vick’s criminal participation in underground dog fighting ventures is unforgivable. I want to ride that riptide of clarion moralism farther still – Vick should have gotten more than 1.5 years in jail for what he did. It’s deplorable that Michael Vick, an ex-convict, just received a $100 million contract from the Eagles for what is considered a dream job. This is a clean, satisfying position to take; the path to a glimmering moral hearth (not to mention tight, hot off the presses media screed).
But I can’t. For one thing, because I work in a public defense office, I’ve had to spend a considerable amount of time interviewing clients inside a jail. The fifty or so hours a year I visit our penal system are are indelible memories that trigger my mouth ajar everytime I hear someone casually scrutinize a criminal sentence as grossly insufficient: “And he only got five years?”
For every minute that I have visited a jail, from the moment I stepped onto the parking lot upon entrance to when I turn on the ignition when leaving, I feel as if my liberty and humanity are stripped away clean. It’s a terrible feeling to entertain, no matter what your lot in life or where you really do live. As a lawyer, the guards treat me with respect, but it’s more the kind afforded to valuable cattle or a horse corralled to a stable. You are transported and processed strictly on their cue: show your documents, move in forward right angles to the door, enter into a drab and dingy room where you stand on a line to be processed again, walk more forward right angles, endure the metal detector, stick your hand out while a guard slaps your hand with an otherwise invisible stamp that only appears when you stick it out under a halogen blue lamp; you can’t help but think “has this been tested for adverse physical effects?” Then, walk a straight line to the attorney-client conference rooms, get paid respectful yet all too often quiet gazes from a few hulking jail guards, listen to the sounds of the visiting room where hundreds of anxiety- and desperation-laden voices murmur under a din of crying babies, smell fetid stenches of cleaning ammonia, grade D food, emptiness, loneliness; take in colors gray, white, orange, and rust. And this before speaking to clients in the conference room, a flourescent bulb lit closet space, sitting across a knife nicked table from a hapless individual drowned in melancholia and boredom. Ten minutes of this, and I need a zoloft.
When I think about what I would do if I spent a week in jail, I tend to forgive Vick after he served a 21-month federal prison sentence. I don’t condone his behavior, but I don’t wish him any worse than the period of his life he just had to endure.
One prison we can all relate to, one at times even more inescapable than iron clad bars, is perception. Millions of people a day are suspect to perception – some of its shackles looser than others. The chains are the tightest, however, on those that have to deal with the most merciless guards of them all: the media.
Although what an athlete does off the field will unavoidably affect perceptions of him under the public eye, the sports media is in the particularly unique position to center the focus to his development on the field. Since he has joined the Eagles, Michael Vick’s teammates on the Eagles have profound respect for him. In the lockerroom, they’ve seen Vick develop as a leader. His game on the field, once wild and undisciplined before his prison sentence, is now poised, patient, at times creatively masterful. These changes are not merely the stuff of statistics; they are signs of strength of character, that this is a man who served his time in jail, rehabilated himself, and is now making a contribution toward society. And yet, on Sunday, media coverage of the Eagles versus Falcons didn’t seek to cultivate this perception of Vick. Rather, it used the contest as an opportunity to let the world know that Vick is still under strict media parole supervision.
The sports media wants to extol Atlanta Falcons star quarterback Matt Ryan. Ryan is more than just a strong NFL quarterback – with hisgolden boy American look, blonde aristocratic tips, and spotless boyscout image, he is the rightful heir to future NFL royalty. And there was no better opportunity to frame Ryan during Sunday evening’s contest against ex-convict Michael Vick and the Philelphia Eagles at the Georgia Metrodome. Hoopla for this contest is understandable, but once again, the sports media translated it into an outright villification of Vick. Vick was escorted off the field in the third quarter amid a throng of boos after having just suffered a harrowing helmut to helmut collision (here is the first video of it that shows up on a Youtube search, already viewed 35,000 times) that made Vick look like a bobble head that had just been hit by a sledghammer. In one of its articles, the Associated Press had this to say about the contest:
“Michael Vick wobbled off the field with an aching neck and a concussion late in the third quarter, all done in his return to Atlanta as a starting quarterback. This is Matt Ryan’s city now, and he led the Falcons back with their former quarterback sitting in the locker room.”
And then there was your garden variety stealthy pot shot, this one courtesy of NBC commentator Bob Costas, who quipped that the Falcons vs. Eagles was an American Audoban Society game. For those who don’t know the signfiicance of Costas’s droll reference, the Audoban Society is an animal rights activist group that works toward the preservation and protection of wildlife. There’s a very slippery, yet inescapable double meaning behind Costas’s label here – yes, because the “Falcons” and “Eagles” are competing, one could assume it was innocuous reference to a competition between two teams’ whose logos are wild birds. But one must also infer the glaring dark irony – that central member of this “Audoban” contest is a person who went to jail for animal cruelty. There’s no decision to be made here – a sneaky little pot shot was made, and the audience has to pay witness to it.
Vick was still in the locker room getting care for his injured neck when the game ended. Had he been on the field, Falcons fans surely would have helpfully pointed out the adjusted score: Atlanta 35, Philadelphia 31.
Given a boost by Vick’s absence, the Falcons offense began to click and scored 14 unanswered. Backup Philadelphia quarterback Mike Kafkaperformed admirably in his reserve role, but a dropped fourth-down pass late in the game sealed the Falcons victory.
For all the improvements Vick and the various sycophants who blindly defend him say he’s made, one thing he hasn’t changed is that cocksure braggadocio. Pointing to the scoreboard is hardly a capital offense. It’s still juvenile and petty and should be beneath most professional athletes, particularly ones who are in the midst of major career rehabilitation. Plenty of stars get booed and don’t point up to the scoreboard like a hotshot high school quarterback.
If Vick were “on the field,” would the Eagles have relinquished a 10-point lead? Would any other player in the NFL be booed so severely when walking off the field after a brain-injury-threatening collision? And while the Yahoo article mentions a Falcons’ “boost” in Vick’s abscence, and pays some lofty praise for the Eagles backup quarterback, Vick’s performance during the first three quarters or the actual strategic implications of his absence are ignored. None of these truths matter, because it is by far more important for the media parole reprimand Vick for violating his “career rehabilitation” conditions.