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Empathy For The Devil

By C. Robert Dimitri | Miscellaneous | September 29, 2010 |

By C. Robert Dimitri | Miscellaneous | September 29, 2010 |

Today I address a controversial topic.

I love dogs. I absolutely love them. I often cite them as my favorite animal. When I am a guest at someone’s house, I have been known to completely eschew all polite social pleasantries to frolic with any dogs that I might meet.

Yes, I am that guy at the party sitting in the corner, sipping his drink, and scratching the mutt-in-residence behind the ear as I telepathically confide in my canine friend that speech is wasted on humans.

When engaging in an intensely competitive game of “Serious Thumbs Up” with my nieces, I concentrate on the absence of my dearly departed four-legged childhood friend Zooey in order to maintain a serious visage and thus win the game.

Unless you consider my lack of human social skills controversial, we have not arrived at the controversial part: Lately I have been feeling as if I am inclined to forgive Michael Vick.

Michael Vick’s story is well-covered territory. Playing for the Atlanta Falcons from 2001 to 2006, he was one of the league’s higher profile quarterbacks. He earned three Pro Bowl selections and dazzled fans with a preternatural scrambling ability that established several quarterback rushing records. He was flush with lucrative endorsements. Then in 2007 we learned that federal charges were being filed against him for his involvement in an interstate dog fighting ring. His fall in the public eye was as precipitous as one might imagine. His endorsements disappeared, the league suspended him, his financial situation became a quagmire, and most notably he became one of the most widely reviled sports figures in history. Vick pled guilty to the charges and served 21 months in prison.

On an analytical level, I can understand the dog fighting allure. As an animal and dog lover, however, I do not understand this brutal and cruel practice. I do not relate to the enjoyment of it, which in my mind would require a disturbing lack of empathy, an emotion and consideration that I see as one of the best human traits. (The ability to empathize is also something that in my opinion dogs are able to express toward humans, which makes our mistreatment of them even crueler.)

In 2009 the NFL reinstated Vick, and he joined the Philadelphia Eagles as a backup quarterback. I will not conceal that as someone who does not like the Eagles, I found this development amusingly appropriate. If Vick would be allowed back in the league, then it suits my personal football-watching narrative that the team that takes this villain into their fold would be the team that I frequently regard as the premier NFL villain.

He played well when replacing Donovan McNabb last season, and his backup status spared him the level of scrutiny he might have received otherwise. Now in 2010 he has returned to the forefront with spectacular play that has won him the starting job over Kevin Kolb. Coach Andy Reid’s decision to reverse his earlier declaration that Kolb was the team’s starter raised eyebrows among pundits, but Vick’s performance on the field in two starts speaks for itself: 575 yards passing, five passing touchdowns, 67 yards rushing, one rushing touchdown, zero turnovers, and two victories. The Washington Post’s Michael Wilbon went on the record stating that at this point in the season Michael Vick is the league’s most valuable player.

After week one of this season, Vick was one of the most popular acquisitions in the world of fantasy football. I recommended to my girlfriend, who is new to the game, that snagging Vick from the waiver wire was probably her best chance to improve her team. She balked and stated that she could never include him on her team. Despite my stats-junkie nature and extreme competitiveness in fantasy football, I myself balked at the idea and wondered how many dog-loving fantasy football players throughout the population might be dreading the prospect of cheering for points from Vick once again.

The general sports reporting media seemed to have moved on from Vick’s criminal history, although the Philadelphia Daily News did resort to the lurid headline “Top Dog” in reporting Vick’s ascendancy. If a consensus in the world of sports commentary has been reached, it would seem to be that Vick served the prescribed time for his crime and should be allowed a second chance. Outside the sports world, many people resent that Vick has been allowed to reenter the NFL at all.

I have never been a person eager to judge others or assess what constitutes redemption or sufficient punishment for a transgression. Perhaps it is too convenient for me to bow to the supposed greater wisdom of our criminal justice system and the decree of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. There are many reasons I do not believe in the existence of hell; one of them is that an infinite amount of punishment for a finite amount of transgression is fundamentally unjust. A good parent does not punish a child with unending agony; a good parent corrects the child in a sternly loving manner that leaves room for improvement. Similarly, I must acknowledge that at some point hating and vilifying Michael Vick loses its significance.

There are other reasons that I do not find the energy to persist in any sort of crusade specifically against Michael Vick. It might seem peculiar to parse the matter like this, but I can tolerate his presence in the league and still actively dislike him for his past actions. Michael Vick is not someone I would envision as a potential personal friend, if that unlikely scenario ever became a possibility. Were Zooey alive today, I do not think that I would be comfortable if she were in the same room with the supposedly rehabilitated Michael Vick.

Most of my dislike for Ben Roethlisberger and Kobe Bryant can be attributed to very public allegations against them, and neither of them was ever even convicted of a crime. That might not make for a completely fair bias, but are not many of our rooting interests in the world of sports irrational or stubborn biases?

What do we truly know about these athletes on this grandiose stage that we have created? In most cases they are only names to us, made prominent by the level of their performances. I do not have the perspective to fairly evaluate the character or morality of any of them. Michael Vick is not the only player in the NFL who has done reprehensible things. I am inclined to cheer against Michael Vick, but have I evaluated the worthiness of every single player that receives my support? I have not.

Charles Barkley famously and controversially stated in 1993 that he was not a role model. His intended message was that parents should be role models for their children instead of those guys on television that can dunk a basketball. I respected Barkley for his statement, as it did place the onus on those of us in the crowd to assume accountability and more carefully consider the subjects of our adulation. Pointing out this misplaced hero worship does not solve the problem, however. This limited self-awareness does not put an end to the blind idolization of star athletes. That makes the individual athletes that do treat their position of influence with a measure of responsibility all the more valuable.

One of the more thoughtful sports commentators said something many years ago that has always stuck with me. He observed that as he became older he found that his rooting interests in the world of team sports became more aligned with individuals and less aligned with the teams themselves. I revel in cheering for my teams and against their rivals, but over the years I have increasingly realized the wisdom of his statement.

A few other things I recently heard about Michael Vick have given me pause.

First, I listened to an interview with him. There is no doubt that he has a motive to repair his public image, but I believed there to be at least some truth to the contrition in his voice.

Second, one of his first responses to the news that he was promoted to starting quarterback was to ask Coach Andy Reid how Kevin Kolb was handling the news. Concern for the feelings of the guy whose job he took demonstrates the empathy that I would tend to dissociate with someone involved in dog fighting.

Finally, this is purely anecdotal and rightfully can be rejected as hearsay, but I have no reason to disbelieve it. The tale I heard was that an acquaintance of a friend of mine took his pit bull to a Virginia Tech event within the last year and crossed paths with Michael Vick. Vick went out of his way to approach this stranger, personally apologized in spite of the fact that he expressed doubts he should be forgiven, and assured him that he realized the error of his ways. For a more public example of Vick’s attempts at making amends, just this week he spoke to Philadelphia school kids about the missteps in his past at an event that called for an end to dog fighting.

If that behavior describes Vick’s current path, what alternate path would anyone suggest that he should take?

I am still wary of Michael Vick’s character, and I think that giving him little to zero margin of error for any criminal activities is a perfectly fair condition in allowing him to remain in the NFL. I’ll definitely be rooting against Michael Vick. However, I hope to only be rooting against him as I would any other Eagle and that he finds personal redemption off the field.

C. Robert Dimitri is nothing more than your average American sports fan that has spent far too many hours in front of the television and has absolutely no further credentials. He reserves the right to change any opinions expressed here; unlike the practice of bandwagon sports loyalty, there is virtue in shifting a position when given new information.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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