By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
With team after team turning him down, the question regarding Michael Vick, thrower of footballs and killer of dogs, is not whether he will return to the NFL or even whether he should return, but whether he would be back already if he were just a wee bit younger and could still thread a needle with the football. The answer, boys and girls, is yes. An excuse would have been found.
Last month, league Commissioner Roger Goodell lifted the ban on Vick, making him eligible to join a team. Vick has done his time in jail, has punched all the remorse and "paid his debt to society" tickets, and even picked up the support of Jesse Jackson, who seems determined to spend his dotage as a parody of Jesse Jackson. It is hard for my fingers to type this, but Jackson compared Vick's attempt to reenter the NFL to Jackie Robinson trying to get into Major League Baseball. (You can look it up -- The New York Times, Aug. 8.)
According to testimony at his trial, dogs that lacked the proper martial spirit were drowned, hanged or bludgeoned to death. Again according to the testimony, Vick witnessed the drowning and the hanging and the bludgeoning. This is considered SOP in the dog-fighting racket. If a fighting dog in a match effectively gives up, the dog is often killed the next day. So what was done on Vick's property is, if nothing else, traditional.
Just as Jackson made a case for Vick being a latter-day Jackie Robinson, I could make the case that the former Atlanta Falcons star was merely doing to dogs what is often done to athletes like him. While it is true that they are not usually drowned, they are seen as commodities that can be disposed of when their utility is reduced. This all-or-nothing feature of sports is not unique -- show biz is similar -- but there are few other endeavors in life where the loss of a step means the loss of an entire career. This is the world of professional athletes. Why should it not be the same for dogs?
Maybe because dogs are innocent, guileless creatures who have not chosen to become fighters. Maybe because their training is brutal and their lives painful. Maybe because bites hurt. Maybe because the entire spectacle is sordid and repugnant -- a gladiatorial contest not between men but between their best friends. True to form, Vick acknowledged all that in his meeting with the commissioner. He now oozes remorse. He is a virtual dog whisperer.
There is no more corrupting corner of American life than sports -- particularly amateur sports, if only because, with the possible exception of synchronized swimming, there is no such thing. A child of 5 knows that gifted athletes do not have to play by the rules. They are forgiven their college classes, their exams and their solemn code of amateurism.
Professional sports, in virtually refreshing contrast, is largely free of cant. The money's big and upfront, and so, too often, is brazen behavior. Kids everywhere learn that playing a game can bring immense riches, not to mention a babe or two.
At the moment, no club has made an offer to Vick. But their rejections were never accompanied by a denunciation or an expression of outrage. Instead, we got dispassionate observations about Vick's presumably depreciated talents or the opinion that hiring him would bring no end of trouble. Value judgments were never made. In this, Ted Thompson, general manager of the Green Bay Packers, was typical. "We look at all options all the time," he told the Associated Press.
In due course, Vick will play again. His entry has already been smoothed by the touching concern of Jackson and others, not to mention a bevy of sportswriters who seem to have programmed their computers to type out "paid his debt to society" with a single keystroke. Some of them have pointed out that they are dog lovers. Touching. But we have yet to hear from the dogs themselves.
When Vick takes the field, I for one will imagine the thrashing of pacifist puppies as they are drowned or twisting in the wind as they are hanged. And throughout the land every kid will know -- if they do not already -- that what matters most is not that Vick has paid his debt to society or is remorseful, but that he could still throw the ball. Maybe an athlete can't quite get away with murder, but drowning dogs is a different matter.