THE SIX-YEAR, $100 million contract that Eagles star Michael Vick signed yesterday guarantees that he will be the team's starting quarterback for the foreseeable future.

As an Eagles fan, this move leaves me a little uneasy. Although Vick performed at an MVP level last year, there's still room to question the wisdom of giving him the keys to the franchise based on a single year of excellence. Although it's possible that Vick has truly developed into the mature player and person that we saw last year, there is always the chance of a personal and professional backslide. (Given the Eagles' offensive line and Vick's late-season propensity for hastily exiting the pocket, I'm much more concerned with the latter.)

As a fan of justice, however, I couldn't be happier with the Eagles' decision. More important than money, the Eagles gave Michael Vick something that is increasingly rare in our society: a second chance.

In April 2007, Michael Vick went from national celebrity to international pariah when he was hit with felony charges related to his role in an interstate dogfighting ring. Two years and 18 months in prison later, Vick was back in the league but no longer in the driver's seat of his career.

Many of the same people who cheered his every move now looked upon him with contempt and scorn. The majority of NFL teams refused to even schedule a meeting with him. Countless fans swore to cancel their season tickets if he ended up wearing their home team's uniform.

Like literally millions of Americans, he was an ex-con facing an unforgiving world and an uncertain job market.

For most people who leave American prisons after a felony conviction, the world is even colder than the NFL was for Vick. In addition to public scrutiny, ex-convicts are also the victims of systemic barriers. The task of finding employment in this shaky economy is made infinitely more difficult for former convicts because of the pesky and often unnecessary "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" question that sits on most job applications. Such a question makes it nearly impossible for a person's slate to be wiped clean after leaving a correctional facility.

In addition to employment, former felons are also systematically denied access to public housing, education loans and, in many states, the right to vote. These conditions, which scholar Michelle Alexander refers to as "The New Jim Crow," reduce former felons to permanent second-class citizens.

So much for paying your debt to society.

But our collective refusal to forgive extends far beyond the walls of prison. Every aspect of society, from schools to social services, has been infiltrated by the logic of "zero tolerance." As a result, we routinely prioritize discipline and punishment over care and forgiveness. As a result, first-time criminals, negligent parents, drug addicts and even misbehaved schoolchildren are subjected to heightened and largely inhumane levels of punishment for their mistakes. In the realm of public opinion, we now want to fire, censure or vote individuals out of office for the slightest mistake, failure or unpopular decision.

Of course, Michael Vick has been spared much of this trouble because of the second chance given to him by the Eagles. In truth, however, this opportunity had less to do with the Eagles' social vision and more to do with his extraordinary talent. After all, it's difficult to imagine players like Vick (or equally embattled star Plaxico Burress) being welcomed back to the league if owners didn't believe that they could earn them money and championships.

This isn't cynicism. This is reality.

I couldn't be happier for Michael Vick. I just can't help but wonder how much better the world would be if we gave everyone the same benefit of the doubt.

Daily News editor-at-large Marc Lamont Hill is an associate professor of education at Columbia University and host of "Our World With Black Enterprise," which airs at 6 a.m. Sundays on TV-One. Contact him at