A Long Way to Go

Michael Vick's acceptance of responsibility for his actions amounts to a first step.
Michael Vick's acceptance of responsibility for his actions amounts to a first step. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, August 28, 2007

It was a good first step, for Michael Vick to stand there at the lectern without any notes, without a text prepared by his lawyers or handlers, and take responsibility for his lawlessness. It's a shame the reality of jail and a derailed career forced him to do something he should have done much earlier, but at least we finally saw Vick stand there and say, "My bad."

It was good to hear Vick apologize unconditionally, for not just what he did but what he facilitated. It was good to see the same man who has presumed all along he was bulletproof and completely outside the law show what appeared to be actually humility. I didn't think Michael Vick had that kind of performance left in him, to be quite honest.

But it still only amounts to a first step.

He'll get plenty of practice in the coming months and years to become more eloquent on the topic of his heinous behavior, to apologize in greater detail about killing dogs and gambling and lying. He'd better not get to the point of sounding rehearsed or detached; he'd better get used to apologizing over and over and over again if he wants to be a better man, as he says he does, if he wants to be forgiven and certainly if he wants to ever play another down of professional football.

Yesterday morning in that Richmond courthouse was a good first step, but no more.

Right now, the bet here is that Vick is sorry only about having to wave goodbye to hundreds -- yes, hundreds -- of millions of dollars and the privilege to play quarterback on Sundays. Not to sound too cynical, but there's this one little hint that neither he nor his enablers, and the people singing Negro spirituals and "We Shall Overcome" outside the courthouse yesterday, seem to get it. Vick and his sycophants keep talking about Vick making "a mistake."

A mistake is when you turn the wrong way down a one-way street and plow into an oncoming car. A mistake is when you inadvertently leave the oven on and cause a fire in your house. A mistake is when you and the receiver get crossed up and the cornerback takes the ball the other way for a pick-six. Michael Vick didn't simply commit a mistake; he willingly and arrogantly created and engaged in criminal activity for at least six years. A mistake would have been arranging one dogfight. Vick engaged in a pattern of criminal behavior that goes back, according to his estranged father, to the end of the previous decade.

One can only hope that while he's incarcerated Vick can learn the difference between making a mistake and acting repeatedly like a lawless bum. Humility can open a man's mind to a lot of concepts he wouldn't embrace voluntarily. Yesterday in Richmond was only the first step in that direction after 1,000 missteps.

It was also a snapshot of uniquely American behavior, the kind that now automatically accompanies a salacious episode. The right to assemble and the right to protest are among our greatest guarantees as a democracy, but it's impossible to watch for one second, see the extreme nature of rhetoric, and not think of O.J. Simpson or Michael Jackson. Only this wasn't playing out in Southern California, around the corner from Hollywood, where virtually everything is so absurd it's difficult to take anything seriously. This went down in the former capital of the Confederacy, people singing abolitionist songs in support of a 27-year-old black man who of his own free will made outrageously stupid decisions despite advice to the contrary. Talk about a historical twist.

It's become the latest reality show we cannot turn off. People might not have an opinion yet about the '08 presidential election, many Americans have no idea fires are ravaging Greece, or even that flood waters are paralyzing the Midwest, but they have an opinion on Michael Vick. Much of it is knee-jerk extremism junk, coming from both the supporters and detractors, neither restrained enough to make much sense.

The volume of the debate wouldn't bother me much if there was as much outrage over other celebrity misbehavior. I'm sorry, but I don't recall the anywhere near this much outrage when Lawrence Phillips was dragging a woman by the hair down the steps while at Nebraska. I love dogs -- and grew up with one wonderful German Shepherd from 4 to 18. But I wouldn't value his life above that of a human being.

Drunk driving? No problem, put the guy back on the field. Wouldn't want him to miss a snap or be a distraction. Batter a woman? No problem, trot him right back out there. Please don't tell me battering a dog, sick as that is, is worthy of more outrage than battering a spouse or girlfriend, which we seem to dismiss now with frightening casualness.

But there's nothing casual about the reaction to Vick or anything he does. It's hard to find a silver lining in any of this, the crime, the reactions, the overreactions, the tragic waste of career and wealth. I guess if anything, the end of Vick's apology might offer some hint of better things to come from him. One thing we are probably safe to assume about a man of Vick's athletic success is he won't shy away from trying to prove he's better than what he's been to this point.

Oh, there's no question Vick is in the toughest competition of his life, trying to win back his reputation and a chance to do what he loves. Of everything he said, what he said at the end makes me most hopeful. "I will redeem myself," he said. "I have to." One can only hope.

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