By James Hussey
This should have been the year that Green Bay’s renaissance was complete, when the shackles created by Brett Favre’s interminable “retirement” would be cast aside and Aaron Rodgers could assume his position at the top table of league quarterbacks.
Failing that, the golden-toothed Chris Johnson’s attempts for a second successive 2000 yard rushing season was bound to grab all the headlines. Welcome on stage your pantomime villain, Michael Vick!
Vick, jailed three years ago for his role in a dog-fighting ring, quickly became the pin-up boy of modern American anger and resentment upon his release. White America was disgusted by his inhumane treatment of dogs and the lies he told to cover his tracks. Black America disapproved of his cruel pastime but also railed against the fact that Vick had made himself a negative black stereotype.
His fall was complete by the end of 2007, stripped of his position as Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback, imprisoned and with public dismay at its zenith, Vick was the “bust flush” of his sport.
Fast forward three years and Vick has a new team, a positive outlook, and most importantly, a new lifestyle, away from what he deemed as his “ghetto antics”. He is still, according to a recent Forbes magazine poll, “The Most Disliked Person in Sports”. Vick has been out of prison for over a year. He has publicly apologised in front of ex-coaches and team mates, his family and friends, yet his image rehabilitation has been painfully slow.
The race card has undoubtedly been used on Michael Vick throughout his NFL exile and subsequent return. Sports writers the length and breadth of America questioned the suitability of Vick’s return to a professional stage after charges of brutality brought against him were proved correct. In this writer’s opinion, the Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback was, and continues to be, victimised by the American press for, among other things, being a privileged black man who threw it all away.
Vick has often spoken about the violence of his childhood and how, as a youngster, football kept him off the streets and into the view of prospective school scouts.
Modern America is not short of success stories from “projects” across the country. Vick, upon attending Virginia Tech, joined countless other athletes who had worked their way out of the ghettos and into college due to prodigious natural talents.
Michael Vick’s story (without the national stardom) is one familiar to many young black men throughout America who are passed through the system, return to their original neighbourhoods and get involved in behaviour that leads to incarceration. His story should not be looked at in isolation, but rather in a larger, societal context. I do not want to excuse Vick’s shameful crimes, but rather implore that they be viewed against the background from which he came.
The opinion held by many in African-American society of canines is very different to that of the stereotypical view on man’s best friend. Dogs were used as a tool by white slave owners to seek out runaway black slaves. They were used again to quell race riots by the predominantly white police force in the face of “black violence”. In various “ghettos” across America, dogs are baited on a regular basis. A dog can be seen as anything from a companion to an extension of the white man’s historical, racially motivated oppression to various members of American society. This sets the scene for Vick’s complaint that he did not realise the implications of his actions, having being brought up in an area where dog fighting was a widely accepted past time. Never having viewed dogs as tame pets, merely as pseudo-contestants in illicit organised canine fights, goes some way to explain his behaviour.
The media jumped on the aforementioned statement, questioning the suitability of Vick to appear on an international stage when he could not, apparently, tell the difference between cruelty and sport. The race card was well and truly played by the press throughout the period following Vick’s comments. America’s writers jumped upon the ex-Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback as another example of depravity bred by the poverty in “ghettoes” across America. I would proffer that, far from excusing Vick’s actions, his statement indicates the improvements needed in social housing projects, especially regarding young African-American men. Michael Vick’s conviction should have acted as a catalyst for some social change, instead he was placed on a perverse pedestal and crucified by the national media.
I am not, in any way, lessening the significance of Vick’s horrific crimes. He bred approximately 60 dogs in his Virginia home in cramped conditions, purely for the purpose of fighting them in grubby settings across the Southern state. Vick, in a recent interview, claimed that he had fallen back in with people from his old neighbourhood, got involved in the ghetto lifestyle again and restarted the habits that were prevalent during his upbringing in Newport News. This is no excuse for criminal activity but goes some way to explaining why Philadelphia’s newly “re-born man” participated in such heinous practices. That Vick saw nothing wrong with fighting pit bull dogs indicates the deep-rooted habits of his community. Vick’s origins had never left him, his “Bad Newz Kennels” enterprise merely a latent expression of the childhood he had experienced in a poverty-stricken Virginia City.
His crimes were horrific and the falsehoods he told in the aftermath of his discovery made everything worse, but the media deluge Vick has faced in his rehabilitation has been nothing short of shameful. The question that I, and others, continue to ask is would the same treatment be meted out to a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? Michael Vick wasn’t the wholesome character expected of quarterbacks in a league where the image of a team’s “man under centre” is integral to media success.
He has, in returning to the starting job in Philadelphia, without a doubt changed his ways, but one must wonder will Michael Vick’s career continue to be reported on in such an unforgiving, media-driven society.