I was talking to an ex-NFL player last week, guy I hadn't seen in a while, and eventually we got around to Michael Vick. The ex-player is African-American, from the rural South. His take was that Vick's prison term for dogfighting was way too harsh, and that people should let that go, as Vick remakes himself as the quarterback of the Eagles. The ex-player recalled seeing Sunday afternoon dogfights in a park where he grew up, witnessed (and presumably wagered upon) by the local police.
This was not an isolated occurrence. I think if you surveyed the largely African-American Eagles locker room, that guy's take would be the perspective of a huge percentage of the players.
Race is such a tricky, hot-button thing, so many of us just try to pretend it isn't a part of the issues we deal with, even when it obviously is.The Eagles' locker room shocked much of the (white) fan base by voting Vick the Ed Block Courage Award last year. Hmmm. What do you think that was about?
Another conversation last week, with a (white) agent. He was talking about going to a Super Bowl party many years ago, when Vick was near the start of his career. The party was largely African-American, and the agent remembered being surprised at how Vick's presence resonated with other famous players and guests -- "it was like Michael Jordan had walked in," the agent said.
Does race play a part in the public's perception of Michael Vick?
One of the reasons Roger Goodell was so interested in Vick's rehabilitation was Vick's standing in the African-American community. Predogfight scandal, by 2007 much of white America might have seen Vick as a sideshow, a quarterback who never took his craft seriously enough to win anything. Black America saw an artist, an elegant, unstoppable performer. (They now see him as an elegant, unstoppable performer who has been persecuted by white people.)
This was much like the split that surrounded Allen Iverson in his prime. (A guy from the exact same background, a few neighborhoods over.)
So, here we are, with Vick starting for the Eagles, and playing well. All over the Internet, people (mostly African-American) argue that he has paid his dues and should be embraced. Other people (mostly not African-American) argue that torturing and killing dogs over a period of years isn't something you just shrug off because a guy went to prison for a while and is now playing real well.
I don't see any easy answers, an unqualified yes to one and no to the other. Obviously, I didn't grow up black in the rural South. I grew up white in the suburban South. I think I understand a little of the "cultural" argument. I never saw a dogfight, but in my family, dogs were not cuddly little foo-foo things; they lived outdoors, didn't come in the house. One neighbor had a kennel of hunting dogs, and gave us one who couldn't hunt.
Still, I found myself wanting to ask the ex-player last week, "So, after these dogfights in the park, did you watch the dogs being hanged and electrocuted? Did you think, 'Gee, that looks like fun, I'd like to kill some of those dogs myself!' Over and over and over again?"
Vick has been nothing but decent and courteous to me. I can't reconcile what he has done with the guy I talk to in the Eagles' locker room. I'm really hoping to get a better handle on that as we move forward. And as a sports reporter, I can't let my discomfort with what he did make me discount what he does on the field; if I let that happen, I am not doing my job.
But I'll admit, I find the idea of Vick "sticking it to" his critics by playing well a really perverse, obnoxious notion. He can throw for 100 touchdowns this year, and he still did what he did, and it was still really, really, really wrong.
The only hope for something good coming out of Vick's ascension that I can see is that maybe Vick will gain a greater platform to somehow explain himself, that he can give us a better notion than he has so far of how these things can possibly happen, and demonstrate through his words and deeds he is really a different person now.
But I think it's going to be a bumpy ride.
To read our earlier post about Donovan McNabb's radio show, click here.