Goodell Must Take Stock of What Vick Has Learned

Reportedly, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has tentatively decided to allow Michael Vick to go to training camp once the QB signs with a team.
Reportedly, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has tentatively decided to allow Michael Vick to go to training camp once the QB signs with a team. (By Mary Altaffer -- Associated Press)
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By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, July 25, 2009; 12:28 AM

What other company besides the NFL would give a violent convicted felon a high-paying job? The league is the only organization on the face of the earth where Michael Vick could find work doing anything other than pushing a shovel or a broom, much less for several million dollars.

It looks like Vick will play in the NFL this season, but only because the capricious spinning dial of nature awarded him quick feet, and because Commissioner Roger Goodell will give him a reprieve from indefinite suspension. What should hopefully be plain to Vick, as he awaits Goodell's final decision, is that he is helpless and utterly reliant on people more powerful than he. He must rely on them for his food, and his shelter. He must trust that they will do him good, rather than harm. In that sense, he's no better than a dog. So. How does it feel, Mike?

According to reports, after a three-hour meeting with Vick on Thursday, Goodell has tentatively decided to allow him to attend the opening of training camp next week. However, the league has cautioned that Goodell is still evaluating; "we are engaging in a careful and thoughtful process, and no decisions have been made," spokesman Greg Aiello said. If Vick does play again, his status will be highly conditional, and this will be his one last chance. While Goodell evaluates, here are some things he should consider.

Vick killed and maimed animals for sport and treated them as discardable when they were played out and used up. His presence on the field will associate the NFL with cruelty as public entertainment and put the worst possible connotation on a word so often used to describe the league: "gladiatorial." People will assume Vick learned this inhumane behavior playing the game, and some will say the league sanctions it.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals representatives have called on Goodell to give Vick a full psychological evaluation before allowing him to play, claiming he shows signs of antisocial personality disorder, which means he takes pleasure in harming things, is remorseless, and the chance of his recidivism is high. According to PETA, Vick enjoyed placing pets in the cage with fighting pit bulls. "Baiting" is not uncommon in dog fighting circles, which are known to kidnap family pets to use as training fodder, to be ripped apart. PETA President Ingrid Newkirk told the Newport News Daily Press, "Saying sorry and getting his ball back after being caught enjoying killing dogs in hideously cruel ways for many years doesn't cut it."

It's not incumbent on the league to give Vick a second chance -- he already has had a second chance at decent employment, thanks to the kindness of others. John Robert Lawson II, a CEO and the rector of Virginia Tech, gave Vick a $10 an hour full-time construction job in Hampton Roads on his release. Goodell should ask Vick if he knows what the current unemployment rate is in Hampton Roads. On the day he got out of Leavenworth, it was hovering at more than seven percent.

Nevertheless, there is an argument in favor of reinstatement. Most of the 50 dogs Vick treated so viciously have been rehabilitated in rescue homes and recovered their gentler natures.

If they can do it, so can Vick. In addition to serving a 23-month sentence, he has been punished in other ways. Though Vick was a predator who trained dogs to kill each other, he was also preyed upon, as the painful minutes of his bankruptcy proceedings attest. He was fed on by scavenger coyotes, the crooks and thugs he towed out of his old Bad Newz neighborhood in Newport News, who spent his money heedlessly, on horses, cars, and even boats, until they left his bank accounts looking like chewed-on carrion.

"If you take a dog which is starving and feed him and make him prosperous, that dog will not bite you," Mark Twain said. "This is the primary difference between a dog and a man."

Vick filed for bankruptcy in 2008, with debts of $20.5 million and assets of $16 million, and a bankruptcy judge found in 2008 that he owed more than $1.2 million in back taxes. He desperately needs to get back on the field to meet those debts, and he has told a judge he believes he can play 10 more years. He will need to, if he's going to ever dig out of his financial hole those feeders left him in.

Back in 2006 when Vick's kennels were exposed, commentator Jonah Goldberg wrote, "Torturing a dog or a cat for sport is not disgusting because animals have rights; it is repugnant because human beings have obligations."

Vick at least seems to understand something about obligations. In bankruptcy court, he revealed the number of people he is trying to support, and at what level: He kept at least six homes in Virginia, Georgia, and Florida, and provided living expenses and about 10 vehicles for friends and relatives. He said he felt obligated to provide for his friends and family because of "where he had come from." The judge replied that, while the sentiment was commendable, "You can't be everything to everybody. If you do, you're going to be nothing to anybody."

Vick is one more mistake from being nothing to anybody, as disposable as one of those dogs he killed when they weren't champion enough in his estimation. In deciding whether to accept Vick back into the league, what Goodell should look for above all is this: a sign that Vick recognizes that all creatures are sentient.

If the violence of the NFL has any ennobling purpose to it, if it's good for anything other than cruel spectacle, it's that the game explores a moral balance, the fragile line between sport and meanness. A humane restraint, the desire to compete without hurting, is an essential component and the only reason we say the game can bring out the best in people. Otherwise all that's left is bloodlust.

Goodell should listen for a simple tone in what Vick has to say, and he will know when he hears it: It will be the sound of humility, of someone who has acquired a sense of himself in relation to other beings. Someone who now knows how it feels.

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