SIGN MICHAEL VICK!
On Wednesday, 19 July 2009, former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick completed his federal sentence for dogfighting. At that moment he was free to seek employment as a professional football player. As a lifelong Chicago resident, and as a lukewarm sports fan, I would love to see Vick in a Bears uniform. I have two major motivations.
First, as a sports fan, I believe Vick’s talents are so outstanding and unique that any struggling team or lackluster major market team would do well to find him a roster spot. The Bears have such a remarkable record of futility at the quarterback position that, for them, Vick’s entertainment value far outweighs his potential shortcomings as a team leader and passer. The Bears’ and their fans’ cautious optimism for the impending Jake Cutler era, if history is an able guide, will soon be met with familiar disappointment. Why not sign a backup quarterback who will dazzle with a running ability that far outshines that of anyone currently on the Bears’ roster? Why not gamble a short-term contract on the likelihood of Vick’s off-field maturity (such as it is) positively affecting his ability and willingness to mature his game? Sure, there will be loud and spittle-flecked opponents of such a move, but I would urge the Bears’ front office to ignore the tsunami of negativity and sign Vick. The fickle morality of the general public, including sports fans, should not be overestimated. This leads me to the second point, which is the heart of this rumination.
This point is multifaceted: first, there is the issue of legality. Vick has served his sentence, and is legally free to seek employment. It is up to the NFL to decide if it will lift the indefinite suspension it has imposed on Vick, but that is a formality likely to be accompanied by the obligatory dog-and-pony show of staged public contrition (Vick’s) and faux stern, cautious acceptance (the NFL’s). Given the perennial shortage of top-tier NFL quarterbacks—not to mention talented or even capable backups—Vick’s market value outweighs his moral baggage.
That moral baggage is the second issue. I will assume for the sake of argument that the vast majority of NFL fans found Vick’s participation in dogfighting to be morally repugnant. I will also assume for the sake of argument that the vast majority of NFL fans are not vegetarians. Given that the revulsion for dogfighting stems from the practice’s inherent brutality, it bears questioning whether the average non-vegetarian dogfighting opponent (and potential Michael Vick critic) pays even a fraction of that attention to the various processes that bring animal flesh to his or her lips. In other words, if you think Michael Vick should be banned from the NFL because he tortured and killed dogs for sport, are you as morally strict when it comes to the chain of custody for the meats and animal products that you eat? Do you make sure that your meats and animal products don’t come from factory farms or other cruelty-laden enterprises? Have you given any thought to how many NFL players hunt for sport? (I have no significant objection to hunting, but the differences between dogfighting and sport hunting are more of class, culture, and perhaps degree of cruelty than of morality.)
The moral issue touches on larger societal issues regarding cruelty and violence. I could half-seriously suggest that Michael Vick’s biggest mistake was picking the wrong species and the wrong venues to carry out his torturing and killing. Had he been willing to torture and kill human beings in, say, Bagram Air Force Base or in Abu Ghraib, he might have gotten a lighter sentence had he been charged at all. Hell, he may even have been quietly decorated with the Medal of Freedom. Such facetious speculation illustrates how we as U.S. citizens frequently glorify or condone (or at least excuse or ignore) horrible violence that is performed against innocent human beings, and we sometimes even pin medals on the perpetrators. We go apoplectic over a man who tortured and killed dogs, but we applaud an incoming president who refused to take a clear moral stand against an act of genocide. I don’t think that demonstrates good societal psychological health, but maybe that’s just me.
There is one final, tangentially related issue regarding Vick’s near future. I don’t expect that NFL fans in the league’s less fortunate markets—at least those saddled with mediocre and unexciting quarterbacks—would object too strongly or for too long to the signing of Michael Vick. The loudest whining in response to such a move would come from the same people who spent inordinate chunks of their waking hours screaming condemnations at Barry Bonds. No general manager worth his weight in jockstraps will give such whining any thought. He is aware that people who are screaming curses at the game are watching the game. America’s predominantly white and male football audience doesn’t need to love its favorite sport’s brash, coarse, and occasionally criminally inclined African-American players, because loving to hate them works just as well for attendance and ratings. Hell, it works even better for the advertisers, because a Negro-you-can-love-to-hate draws just as many eyes to the screen as a ‘well-behaved’ athlete, and you don’t even have to shell out money for endorsements.
I don’t expect the Bears to have enough sense, given the conservative (and damn near provincial) leanings of their ownership and much of their fan base, to sign Michael Vick. Whatever team signs him, though, I hope he’s in uniform and on the field the next time they face the Falcons. I know which team I’ll be rooting for.