Head Strong: Patronizing the ones who give you pause

Michael Vick is so much on the brain these days that even a recent holiday trip to the movies to see The King's Speech turned into a conversation about the Eagles QB.

The film was terrific. We saw it as a family and loved it, agreeing that Colin Firth played a great King George VI, struggling to overcome a speech impediment on the eve of World War II with the help of an eccentric speech therapist. I was glad we'd taken our children despite the R rating, which presumably followed (only) a string of expletives between king and therapist.

Michael Vick drew hisses for his off-field behavior. But some among the disappointed root for the team he quarterbacks.

On the way out, my wife said, "You do know Colin Firth is a Mumia guy."

No, I didn't know, or if I knew, I had forgotten. But a quick Google search confirmed that the British actor was the executive producer of In Prison My Whole Life, which I have seen and regarded as a distortion of the crime for which Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted: the murder of Officer Danny Faulkner.

Sometimes it's a good thing my memory is poor, because remembering everybody's off-screen or off-field antics would make it almost impossible to render rational decisions about whom to pay to see or root for. The sports world in particular presents these challenges.

Jeff Benedict, an investigative journalist who has written eight books and contributed to Sports Illustrated and the Los Angeles Times, came up with some grave statistics. With the assistance of law enforcement, Benedict conducted criminal background checks on more than 500 NFL players in 1996-97, and found that 21 percent had been indicted or charged with what he called a "serious crime." A similar research effort found that 40 percent of NBA players in the 2001-02 season had been "the subject of a formal complaint for a serious crime," Benedict wrote.

Good thing they don't distribute rap sheets with programs. And even when the conduct doesn't rise to a criminal level, film and television present similar land mines.

Like Firth, HBO has been supportive of Abu-Jamal. The cable channel did a hatchet job on Faulkner's murder in the mid-1990s when it aired a "documentary" called Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case for Reasonable Doubt? For a long time thereafter, I trashed HBO and refused to watch its programming. But today, I never miss Curb Your Enthusiasm, one of its featured programs. What changed? The Sopranos. The passage of time. And the fact that HBO has the best original programming on TV.

One of the most memorable episodes of Curb was the finale of Season 7, which featured a Seinfeld reunion complete with Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer - the last played by Michael Richards. The same Michael Richards who in 2006 went off the deep end with an "n" word tirade after being heckled at a Los Angeles comedy club. I was appalled by his rant, but found myself laughing out loud when I heard his interplay with his old colleagues, much as I do watching Seinfeld reruns.

Kanye West sprinkled the same "n" word - though with noticeably less ballyhoo - throughout his latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which I downloaded after Rolling Stone deemed it the best album of 2010. The rapper made my track list despite a history of erratic behavior - including his infamous interruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. West insisted that Beyonce's video was better than Swift's. President Obama dismissed him as a "jackass." I agreed. But he's now on my iPod.

Of course, rappers haven't cornered the market when it comes to musicians with whom I disagree. A friend invited me to see Roger Waters perform The Wall at the Wachovia Center a few months ago. Waters had been a vocal critic of the Bush administration's treatment of prisoners at Gitmo. I disagreed with him on that issue, but still rate Pink Floyd's Animals as one of my favorite albums of all time. Was I supposed to stay home?

If I had stuck to my Barcalounger, I could have watched an on-demand episode of 30 Rock. The interplay between Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin is the best comedic acting on TV. Too bad the latter apparently doesn't have the same chemistry with his daughter, whom he dismissed as a "thoughtless little pig" in a voice mail outed by TMZ a few years ago.

Errant phone calls also got Mel Gibson into his latest round of trouble. I figured he was finished acting after the release of those tapes in which he mercilessly berated his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, even though I thought she had deliberately pushed some of his hair-trigger buttons. But the guy can act. Lethal Weapon, anyone? At the movies recently, I saw the trailer for his next movie. It looked funny.

Whom to root for and what to patronize extend beyond the celebrity element. They are a part of everyday life. I did not stop eating cheeseburgers at Rouge when Neil Stein got jammed up on tax troubles. Sometimes a good burger is just a good burger. I gotta eat somewhere.

All of which leaves me ambivalent about Vick but rooting for the 10 other guys on the gridiron today. Go, Birds.

Contact Michael Smerconish

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