Michael Vick shouldn't be going out this way. Beaten down and ripped up, he left the Eagles' game on Sunday like a Ferrari sputtering into a salvage yard. He may play again. He probably will, but only briefly. He's long done as Michael Vick, one of the scariest forces in the NFL, and even quarterback desperation on a scale that prompted the Rams to dial up Brett Favre last week won't land him another job.
All of that is fine. Vick is 33, and he's made a great living. If he were a running back, which he almost was for extended parts of his career, he'd have been finished by 31. He'll leave without ever playing in a Super Bowl and without winning a playoff game for the Eagles, the team that hired him as a backup in 2009 after his two-year prison sentence. That's all fine, too.
The regrettable fact is Vick still holds the title of most disliked player in the NFL, as determined by a Forbes survey and even the most cursory Google search of his name. Many people see his years of running a dogfighting ring and the sadistic killing of beta animals as impossible to forgive. They make videos and update blogs as relentless reminders of Vick's sins, and censure against the Eagles for taking him into the fold. I just learned the proprietor of my favorite neighborhood bar in Philly, where I lived in the mid-'90s, bans Eagles games from the TV for exactly that reason. Doobie's also refuses to serve Canadian beer because the country permits the clubbing of baby seals.
I understand the attitude. Every reminder of what happened at Bad Newz Kennels before Vick's 2007 arrest roils the stomach. As I sat down to write this piece, I watched videos based on the "The Lost Dogs,'' a book written by Jim Gorant about the rehabilitation of Bad Newz survivors, looked at the scars left on them, saw them lick the faces of their new owners, and reviewed the ways Vick and his cohorts killed and tortured the weakest of the bunch. The anger and sadness from 2007 came roaring back. They always do when I see the evidence. The cruelty was -- and still is -- unfathomable. I was as disgusted as anyone about Vick back then. I cynically predicted he'd find God in prison and then use the Lord as his flak jacket. He destroyed that forecast, going long on the Bible before he was even sentenced and not longer after he peddled lies without a hint of remorse.
So why forgive him? Why even try? The explanation isn't a justification. It's a simple answer. We have to believe people can change for the better, and that because Vick operated from such a steep deficit of compassion, he needed others to show him how it worked. In the six years since he went to prison, he does appear to have matured and to grasp why his actions were so repulsive. I doubt he has absorbed all of the horror of what he did, but I don't think anyone could.
Did he deserve a second chance to make millions and go to work in front of 60,000 adoring customers? That seems 100 times better than most people's first chances in life and incalculably superior to the typical felon's re-entry into the real world. If we could disburse the bounty of his fresh start among everyone else, I'd make that deal. But it's not on the table, and in its absence, maintaining him as a villain doesn't seem like an answer to animal abuse in the future.
Perhaps if he'd moved from the penitentiary to a humble life outside football, he'd make a more forgivable subject. Then nobody could fret that his talent had excused the acts of depravity practiced on those 15 acres of Virginia farmland.
The story did take off in that direction in 2010, when Vick took over the Eagles' starting job. His success ended up conflating the importance of football and the value of mercy. As he played with more poise than he ever had before, the redemption tales arrived at a nauseating pace. Using his game as a measuring stick missed the point entirely. If he had played dreadfully but done twice as much to remedy his cruelty to animals, we wouldn't have noted his improved character.
But this summer, when Eagles teammate Riley Cooper did the apparently unforgivable, drunkenly dropping the ultimate racial slur into a violent threat caught on video, Vick stood by him. Vick said if he deserved a second chance, so did Cooper. Later, Vick helped break up a fight between Cooper and another Eagle.
Those moments said more about Vick than even his post-prison alliance with the Humane Society. Did they say enough?
Again, I can't make a detailed argument in favor of forgiveness. In fact, most of his supporters' points have left me cold, if not disgusted:
- They were only dogs, not humans. Actually, by breeding pit bulls for viciousness and destroying the least aggressive, Bad Newz Kennels helped further the transformation of animals once considered loving caretakers into public-safety threats. The people who adopted these damaged dogs deserve endless credit for trying to unwind the mess Vick created.
- Vick was demonized so unfairly he received more prison time than NFL receiver Donte' Stallworth, who fatally struck a man while driving under the influence in 2009. This is ridiculous comparison. Stallworth made a terrible mistake and accepted responsibility immediately. He did not mean to hurt anyone; he was careless and stupid and selfish. Vick destroyed living creatures for pleasure and potential profit.
- Vick was misled by parasitic friends. This is a classic excuse for a celebrity athlete. Vick has said the dogfights were his idea. He had all the power in those friendships. If he had wanted to turn that lovely estate, with its big main house, into a homeless shelter, his friends would have bought into the plan.
It's a challenge to forgive Vick and believe he has changed. I know that. I'm not always up to the task. But believing that he hasn't, that he will always be the man who helped smash a poor dog to its death, amounts to hopelessness. If we want to imagine a culture without animal cruelty, we have to accept evidence that this one perpetrator has overcome whatever drove him to such sadism.