Michael Vick's Self-Defeat
" I'm upset with myself, and, you know, through this situation I found Jesus and asked him for forgiveness and turned my life over to God."
When I heard disgraced Atlanta Falcons phenom Michael Vick utter those words before the cameras in his mea culpa moment just after pleading guilty to a federal dogfighting charge, I let out a primal scream of disbelief. Finding God -- like going to rehab -- seems to be the refuge of choice for celebrities on the wrong side of the law.
Sitting in a chair at Walls Barbershop a short time later, I paid close attention to the reactions of the black men there as the Vick story blared over the radio and that sound bite was played. A gentleman waiting for a haircut snickered. Before leaving, I asked him why he reacted the way he had.
"I'm skeptical," he said.
I'm thrilled not to be alone in not giving Vick a free pass. In the days leading up to Vick's dramatic moment Monday in Richmond, I was growing weary of many African Americans treating him as if he were the victim of an overzealous prosecutor. There were the demands to not rush to judgment. There were the reminders that in America everyone is innocent until proven guilty. And there was the creeping belief that Vick was being singled out because he was a black man who had grown so rich that the white man had to take him down.
Have there been and will there be blacks disproportionately bearing the brunt of criminal prosecutions? Yes. But I refuse to circle my wagons to protect the likes of Michael Vick.
If there is a twinge of anger in that last sentence it's because, as a black man, I am angry -- at Vick and other black men of incredible talent who achieve enviable stature against the odds and then throw it all away. The 27-year-old quarterback in December 2004 signed a record 10-year contract worth $130 million. Yet all it took to snuff out his own career was a criminal dogfighting enterprise called "Bad Newz Kennels," which Vick financed and where he participated in cruelly snuffing out underperforming and losing pit bulls.
His guilty plea came after weeks of lying. He lied to Arthur Blank, the owner of the Falcons. He lied to National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell. And he lied to the legion of fans who marveled at his prowess on the gridiron.
All that money. All that prestige. All that power to do good, to be a positive role model for black boys and men across the country. Black pride in action.
I should have known he wasn't cut out for such a lofty mission when he flipped the bird to booing fans at the Georgia Dome last season after the Falcons lost a game. But while Vick fell short, there are black heroes out there.
The father who comes home every night and provides for his family is a hero. The mother who works two jobs so her children can go to a better school or grow up in a better neighborhood is a hero. The grandparents who give their children and grandchildren a sense of self and worth and place in the world are heroes. But even heroes need someone to turn to. Someone of stature and character who will reinforce the view-- through words and actions -- that the path to success is paved with sacrifice, hard work, perseverance and a whole lot of gumption.
"I want to apologize to all the young kids out there for my immature acts, and, you know, what I did was, what I did was very immature, so that means I need to grow up," Vick said in a tone that did strike me as penitent. "I hope that every young kid out there . . . will use me as an example to using better judgment and making better decisions." That's a good first step on the road to redemption, but it will be a very long time before Vick claws his way back to respectability in my book. If ever.