I want to believe that he's seen the error of his ways, that he realizes how inhumanly cruel dogfighting is, that he recognizes why it's so dangerous for professional athletes to be caught up in any kind of gambling.
But I just don't. I don't believe him. Not yet. Michael Vick has a long way to go before he convinces me he's learned a damn thing from this experience other than "Being caught in criminal activities is unpleasant."
I will acknowledge being somewhat impressed that Michael Vick spoke without reading a prepared statement or using any kind of notes. That was good, that was classy. But I question the sincerity of a man who feels the need to inform you that he's going to speak from his heart before he speaks from his heart. I question the sincerity of a man who declares that he is changing his ways only after facing jail time and the loss of over 100 million dollars, especially when the ways he is changing involve a half-decade of calculated and repeated ultra-cruelty and the funding and organization of an interstate gambling ring. I question a man's new-found desire to live within the law when he was pulled over in Virginia last week for driving a vehicle with illegally tinted windows and was further cited for not wearing his seat belt.
What troubles me most is that when he claims to have found Jesus and turned his life over to God because of this tribulation, I can't bring myself to believe him. I'm a born-again Christian myself, a one-time youth minister and current music minister, and I can't find it in my heart to believe that Vick is doing anything but pulling out the religion card to try to appeal to another group of potential supporters. Emmitt Smith could believe it; one of his strongest comments on ESPN last night was support for Vick's spiritual breakthrough. But I just can't find a way to view it that isn't cynical as hell. So now I'm ashamed of myself as well for not being able to have enough mercy to believe in a man's conversion.
One of the most common complaints we've been hearing recently is that Vick wouldn't have been vilified this completely if he had killed a person. Well, I think that's probably true, and I have to tell you, I have no problem with that. Murder can be seen as a crime of passion, a horrible choice made in a single moment of extreme emotion; even premeditated killing is an action encompassing a small piece of time. Vick's dogfighting operations involved repeated acts of knowing cruelty, over and over and over, year in and year out; fights and rape stands and hangings and drownings and electrocutions; planned, scheduled, well-attended, and in view of an appreciative audience of like-minded abusers. Dogfighting involves taking advantage of beings who can't say "No, please don't do that to me." It requires taking animals designed to serve and accompany humans and other dogs and programming them to think of nothing but violence and fear. It's an unspeakable cruelty more comparable to serial child molestation than anything else. If you're not a "dog lover," if you "don't get" why this is such a big deal, that's okay. Federal and State laws get it for you. I don't believe that a dog's life is as valuable as a human's, but I believe that the utter cruelty needed to assign no value whatsoever to any kind of life is among the most reprehensible things on the planet. And I believe it deserves punishment at least as severe as what Michael Vick is facing.
But in all honesty, that's mainly just the splashy headline here. The unforgivable crime here isn't the dogs, it's the gambling. Gambling of any kind is expressly prohibited in every NFL Players' Association contract, and is punishable up to a lifetime ban. Athletes whose actions on the field affect billions of dollars in legal gambling activities can't possibly put themselves in a position where they might have gambling debts that might be called in by organized crime. You simply Can. Not. Gamble. as an NFL player. It's the deadliest of deadly sins. And it's in his contract, clearly spelled out in black and white.
Vick's plea deal stops short of saying "I personally killed dogs" and "I gambled on dogfighting," couching his confession by stating that dog execution was a collective effort, and ludicrously claiming that Vick never accepted money when he won bets. If anyone believes that, I've got a bridge to sell you. By pleading to lower and vaguer charges, Vick is trying to keep the door open for a comeback. Some knuckleheads (like Dr. R.L. White, president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP) are going to take his "confession" as gospel truth, defending Vick with the understanding that he didn't confess to personally doing the gambling or the killing. He was just there, part of the crowd, when it all "happened." Uh huh. And Barry Bonds has never tested positive for steroids.
Despite the fact that he remains, for now, on the books as an Atlanta Falcon, Michael Vick is no longer listed in ESPN's searchable database of active NFL players. Seriously, check it out. There's a way to view this almost as an Aristotelian Greek tragedy, with the mighty hero laid low from a great height by his own failings and hubris. But in tragedy, while you may sympathize with Oedipus, Agamemnon, or Medea, you always recognize that the final consequences of the story are the result of the tragic hero's actions. Michael Vick is no different. Yes, I feel bad for his fall, potentially the greatest in sports history. But he made this bed himself. The media didn't do it, PETA didn't do it, and the Bad Newz boys who turned on him didn't do it. He did it.
I taught high school drama last year, and we were studying the character of Edmund from King Lear. Edmund is one of Shakespeare's greatest villains because he's a pure Machiavellian; no crime is too bad as long as he can get away with it. I had my students write on and discuss the topic "The rules don't apply to me," and I was appalled at the number of teenagers who genuinely believe that they can do anything they want to as long as they don't get caught. Skipping class, cheating on tests, plagiarism, lying to their parents; for a small but significant handful of my students all of these and more were daily behaviors with no internal consequences. Morals were purely an external matter of cause and effect. As long as they got away with it, any activity was okay. I found this to be one of the most disturbing days of my entire life. I'm still not sure whether to admire these students' honesty or fear their arrogance.
Throughout this whole soap opera, Vick has reminded me of these students. He's not alone; we seem to be living in a national culture of "it's not bad if I get away with it," from sports figures to entertainers to politicians. If Michael Vick hadn't been indicted, there is no reason to believe he wouldn't still be involved in dogfighting and gambling today. To a certain degree, I acknowledge that this is natural, a part of human nature. And it's part of the job of a legal system in society; it's the stern father who spanks you and sends you to your room for doing wrong, hoping that the negative reinforcement will keep you from hurting anyone else--or yourself--again.
But let's hold up before we start talking about how impressed we are by Michael Vick's public apology. Almost anyone would apologize with their feet as close to the fire as Vick's are. He has got a very long way to go before I'll believe he's sorry for anything other than having gotten caught.