ESPN, race and the Vick debate

ESPN The Magazine photo illustration of a white Michael Vick.

There’s something reporters on this site figured out pretty early last football season: if you write a story with “Vick” in the headline, you’ll get a ton of readers.

Part of that is because Vick is quarterback of the hometown football team. It’s the most important position in any sport. You can go to any NFL city in the country and be pretty safe knowing that if you write about the quarterback, you’ll get a headline. (All superstars can do this to some extent: putting "DeSean" in a headline doesn't hurt either).

But there’s obviously more with Vick. He’s a national superstar. In terms of pure athleticism and highlight potential, he’s one of the most thrilling athletes we have right now.

His play, though, has long been polarizing: dividing those who find him too reckless and others who love his unique skills. On top of all of this we have added his crimes and return to football, topics which seem to stir endless sniping in the comments sections here on

It tends to go like this: write a Vick story, and no matter how much the piece focuses on football, watch the comments section quickly explode into a series of diatribes with pretty clear racial overtones on both sides. (I wouldn’t call it “debate” since usually debates involve some exchange of ideas; for reference, check out the comments below Sheil's post on this topic). The end result? Vick stories are always among the most read, but, it seems, often because of the content below the articles, not in them.

Well, it seems that ESPN has decided to eliminate the middle man and just throw Vick and race together and provide the provocative headline all on their own: “What if Michael Vick Were White?”

Just in case your imagination isn’t active enough, the piece also includes a digital rendition of Vick as a white man, though in all honesty, the version ESPN came up with looks more like a pop singer’s backup dancer (credit to McLane on that one). (The image sparked so much criticism that there were reports it was taken down, but when I visited the site it was still there).

I want to make another point here, so on the illustration, I’ll just say that this seems to be the kind of thing meant to inflame rather than enlighten. The writer of the story makes some interesting, if familiar, points about race and class, citing general statistics that show some of the differences in the upbringing of white and black children. That’s fine. He even reaches what I’d say is a reasonable conclusion: “Ultimately, there is no separating Vick from his circumstances: his race, parents, economics and opportunities.” I think you can say that about just about anyone.

But if the separation is impossible, why use that headline at all? Probably because a more sober approach -- as the writer takes in his actual article -- doesn't generate the kind of attention ESPN received today with its illustration.

I had hoped that after last season - when the many issues surrounding Vick and his return to stardom were well debated -- that we were beyond the "Michael Vick Story" as a media attention-getting device. Instead this is the second consecutive week where words by or about the quarterback have caused a stir. (The GQ article at least added a new dimension to the Vick debate by giving us a new take from the quarterback; the ESPN headline seems to only provoke).

I know why some reporters still want a piece of this story -- Vick is a polarizing figure and in a difficult time for journalists, there are Web hits to be had -- but the off-field arguments have grown stale. On field? There is much to dissect. But the question of whether we should cheer or jeer Vick is a debated issue and the conclusions are locked in.

Some people still despise Vick and will never root for him. Some think his prosecution was overblown in the first place and never stopped cheering him (and maybe cheer even harder for him now). Many were angered by his crimes but believe he paid a price and is allowed to continue with his football career (some of those same people may choose not to cheer him, but still acknowledge his right to play).

In my very unscientific experience, simply interacting with readers by email and talking to people in and around Philadelphia, the vast majority of people fall into that third category. The most vocal ones fall into the first two. Fine. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion.

But regardless of where you fall, the debate has come and gone. People have chosen sides and any new articles tend to only make each side dig in more – as in much of our political debate, they point to the elements that support their own view and ignore anything that doesn’t fit their opinion.

By this point, nothing short of an extraordinary act of kindness or extreme example of cruelty is going to change any minds on Vick as a person. Opinions have calcified.

But there still seems to be a market for trying to stir things up.