Will Vick soar as an Eagle?
Michael Vick spent 18 months in prison for his role in running a dog-fighting ring--but will pundits and fans allow him to play football again?
AS SOON as it was announced that Michael Vick was joining the Philadelphia Eagles, sports-radio nitwits, animal rights activists and even Vick's supporters began overreacting. Many thought Vick wouldn't be signed at all. And no one--I repeat, no one--thought it would be the Eagles, one of 26 teams that had said publicly they wouldn't touch the former number one pick, who just spent 18 months in Leavenworth for running a dogfighting ring.
Dave Zirin is the coauthor, with John Carlos, of The John Carlos Story, and author of Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love and A People's History of Sports in the United States, as well as two collections of his sports writings, Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports and What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States. He is a columnist for TheNation.com; his writings are also featured at his Edge of Sports Web site.
But now the Eagles will come equipped with the most-skilled backup quarterback since Tom Brady was waiting his turn behind Drew Bledsoe. And without current Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb's support, it wouldn't have happened.
"I pretty much lobbied to get him here," McNabb told the Associated Press. "I believe in second chances and what better place to get a second chance than here with this group of guys."
Eagles head coach Andy Reid, whose own sons have had repeated and very public run-ins with the law, said, "I'm a believer that as long as people go through the right process, they deserve a second chance. He's got great people on his side; there isn't a finer person than (Vick adviser) Tony Dungy. He's proven he's on the right track."
Vick is already undergoing a full image rehab, complete with a remorseful interview on 60 Minutes this Sunday and a commitment to work with the Humane Society. He will be speaking out against cruelty to animals, using his celebrity profile to reach those many thousands--yes, thousands--of people in this country for whom dogfighting is a part of normal life.
Still, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) did not even wait for the ink to dry on Vick's new contract before decrying the deal. "PETA and millions of decent football fans around the world are disappointed that the Eagles decided to sign a guy who hung dogs from trees. He electrocuted them with jumper cables and held them under water," PETA spokesman Dan Shannon told The Associated Press. "You have to wonder what sort of message this sends to young fans who care about animals and don't want them to be harmed."
One could argue the message it sends is that a year and a half in Leavenworth might entitle you to a second chance. It is unclear what punishment would satisfy PETA, but it appears certain that they will resume the ugly demonstrations they previously held outside the courthouse during Vick's trial.
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BUT PETA is going to be the least of Vick's problems. Sal Paolantonio, the veteran sports reporter, was on the grand concourse of a packed Philadelphia football stadium when the news broke. He said:
I've been reporting for 25 years in Philadelphia and this is literally the most shocking news story to be just dumped in the lap of this city...The reaction is visceral. I've been listening to sports talk-radio; it has been overwhelming...easily 90 to 95 percent negative.
Sportswriter D.K. Wilson, from the Web site Sports on My Mind, reported that Philadelphia sports radio host Dan Schwartzman was saying:
From a football standpoint it makes sense. But he's coming into our community. I'm thinking of the larger picture...I don't think I'm being harsh in calling Vick "the Boogeyman." I don't think I'm being harsh in saying you don't want Michael Vick around your kids.
One caller to Schwartzman's show said, "This only goes to prove how hypocritical this scumbag organization is...and they bring in Public Enemy Number One? This guy is a scumbag...There's no forgiveness in my heart."
The front page of Friday's Philadelphia Daily News has an unflattering picture of Vick and the headline "HIDE YOU DOGS."
Ron Jaworski, the former Eagles quarterback and Monday Night Football commentator, said on ESPN Radio with far more insight, "I think Michael Vick deserves an opportunity to play football...but I believe of 32 cities where he could go, Philadelphia would be number 32." Jaworski referenced the "passion" of Philly fans creating a difficult environment.
But this passion cuts both ways. While Philly has a history of hostility toward controversial African American players, its fans also are capable of embracing undeniable athletic excellence in spite of questionable antics. (Allen Iverson, anyone?) If Vick performs well on the field, I can see the Philly fans flipping from fierce opposition to fawning admiration of Number 7.
Eagles cornerback Ellis Hobbs said:
He's definitely going to be embraced. The NFL is a fraternity of brothers. When you bring in a guy who's been through the things that he's been through, you want to surround him and protect him as much as possible because everybody's out there throwing stones at him.
We as a nation must collectively recognize that in a country with 2.3 million people behind bars, being an ex-felon shouldn't mean having an "F" tattooed on your chest for the rest of eternity.
First published at TheNation.com.