The Deeper Context of Michael Vick 1/8/11
I have found most discussion of Michael Vick and his crimes to be superficial and boringly predictable. There are those who feel that Vick’s crimes were so evil that he is beyond forgiveness. Witness Tucker Carlson from Fox News. Carlson did not want longer imprisonment. He publicly favored executing Vick. Even by the debased standards of cable news, this was ridiculous and off the charts.
Then there are those who feel Vick paid his price and deserves a second chance. I would say the majority of sports commentators feel this way. I saw Jimmy Johnson say this on a Fox Sunday pregame show. Tony Dungy also has voiced the same sentiments.
Vick served 18 months at Leavenworth in federal prison. He filed bankruptcy and he is in the process of paying back creditors over $20 million. Vick lost all his previous endorsements. His reputation was absolutely in tatters. He was widely reviled as a monster for running a dog fighting ring for profit. He oversaw the torture and execution of dogs.
When Vick pled guilty, he appeared before U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson. Hudson asked, “Are you entering the plea of guilty to a conspiracy charge because you are in fact guilty?”
Vick replied “Yes sir. I totally ask for forgiveness and understanding. I take full responsibility for my actions. I made a mistake in using bad judgment and making bad decisions. Dogfighting is a terrible thing.”
Since he got out of prison, Vick has been a virtual model citizen. When he has not been playing football, he has been a spokesman for the Humane Society’s End Dogfighting campaign. He has spoken to numerous audiences of inner city young people across the country with this message. “Don’t be like me. Don’t follow the rest of the crowd. Exercise good judgment. Be a compassionate person.” After his talks, he has typically stayed around for discussion sessions with the young people.
Since August 2009, Vick has spoken to audiences in Atlanta (Aug 8,2009), Chicago (Aug 12,2009), Philadelphia (Sept 8,2009), Washington DC (Sept 29,2009), Philadelphia (Oct 13,2009), Newport News (Dec 1,2009), Newark (Dec 1,2009), Philadelphia (Jan 26,2010), Miami (Feb 8,2010), Durham (Feb 26,2010), Chicago (Mar 26,2010), Baltimore (May 6,2010), Philadelphia (Sept 28,2010) and New Haven (Nov 23,2010).
For the last year or two, Vick has probably done more than anyone to raise public awareness about the evils of dogfighting. I think this is because he was a dog torturer. This reminds me of one analagous former perpetrator. A couple months ago, i read a book Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead by Frank Meeink. The writer, who grew up in Philadelphia, became a prominent neo-Nazi in his teen years.He changed too and he became a spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League. Sometimes, the people closest to an evil can speak most authoritatively to that evil.
I would ask the Vick haters: what more could he do? How many times should an individual be punished after he has served his time, lost everything etc.?
I think the truth is that for some people there is nothing he could to redeem himself. I find this unforgiving perspective disturbing. When an individual rehabilitates himself that is a cause for celebration. Vick is a rehabilitation model for all offenders.
I do see the Vick case connecting to a deeper context. In the last 30 years, the prison population in the United States has increased in staggering fashion from 300,000 to over 2 million inmates. The deeper context of the Vick case has to do with attitude toward offenders and ex-offenders.
The vindictive unforgiving attitude is based on dehumanization of prisoners. In all the public discussion about Vick, i only saw one commentator who nailed this and that was Dave Zirin, the sportswriter. With thousands of ex-offenders returning to society, the deeper question is : will they get a genuine second chance or will they be written off?
I wanted to mention a very strong book that seriously affected my view of these issues. The book is The New Jim Crow by Ohio State law professor Michelle Alexander. In her book, Alexander focuses on the mass incarceration that has occurred over the last 30 years, especially its racial dimension. Alexander points out that the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. No other country imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities.
I will write more about Alexander’s book but I did want to mention it in connection with the Vick case. Giving offenders a second chance is generally the humane thing to do and it is imperative so that ex-offenders have an opportunity to contribute to society in a positive way. I was glad to see President Obama weigh in regarding Vick and I totally supported his comments. He did see the deeper issue. As quoted by Peter King of Sports Illustrated:
“The president wanted to talk about two things, but the first was Michael, Lurie (Philadelphia Eagles owner) told me. He said, “So many people who serve time never get a fair second chance. He was passionate about it. He said it’s never a level playing field for prisoners when they get out of jail. And he was happy that we did something on such a national stage that showed our faith in giving someone a second chance after such a major downfall.”
Demonizing ex-offenders and adding punishments after they have served their time is stupid. The potential for good and bad resides in all of us. Thoughtful social policy should allow the opportunity for the good in people to emerge. Mike Vick is a perfect example.