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Sports :: Sympathetic Figure?
  submitted on August 20, 2007, 12:50 PM

Originally posted on The Sports Oratory

I just had a chance to sit down and read last week's Tuesday Morning Quarterback by Gregg Easterbrook. The Michael Vick story is one I've been trying to avoid writing about, along with Barry Bonds and Tim Donaghey. I don't try to live in a fantasy land where the world of sports is full of nothing but hard working heroes who always do the right thing and are role models to everyone; I understand that there are plenty of people who commit crimes & act in ethically and morally questionable ways. That being said, it's certainly not an aspect of sports I enjoy, and as such, I try not to waste much of my time discussing it. There is a fascination among people to show great interest in shocking events, such as onlookers of a car accident on a highway causing traffic delays. It's the whole reason shows like Jerry Springer became as popular as it did in its prime. Combine that fascination with the attempt by the media to use it to their advantage by constantly using sensationalistic journalism, and the result is constant bombardment about the most negative and sad stories available. Lost in the shuffle are true feel good stories like the phenomenal career of the young Hanley Ramirez on the Florida Marlins because everyone would rather talk about steroids in baseball. But I'm getting off track here.

I wanted to address some of Mr. Easterbrook's points in his TMQ column. First off, I agree in principle with the idea of the whole situation generating some sympathy towards Vick. When passing judgment on someone, people often like to look at a situation in black and white, when more often than not, there are shades of gray, as well. Just because I feel some sympathy towards Vick doesn't mean I am okay with what he did, or that I absolve him of responsibility for his actions, and it seems as if people feel this way, sort of a 'with us or against us' mentality.

"There's something deeply sick about the fact that you can go to the NFL's official shop and order a Bills jersey with No. 32 and SIMPSON on the back -- go here and try it yourself -- or a Panthers jersey with CARRUTH on the back, the NFL system actually says "Great choice!" in response, but if you go here and try to order a Falcons' jersey with Vick's name or number, you'll get a message saying your order cannot be processed."

I absolutely agree with this sentiment by Easterbrook. And before anyone gets up in arms about the fact that OJ Simpson was found not guilty on criminal charges, he was found guilty on civil charges, making him liable for the wrongful death of Ron Goldman, so there is clearly precedence to disallow anyone from ordering his jersey. The Rae Carruth story might not be as well known, but basically he was involved in the murder of his pregnant girlfriend (The child was born, premature, but now suffers from cerebral palsy), and is in jail at the moment. So it's acceptable to order and wear jerseys from these former 'model' players, but Vick's actions are somehow deemed worse in this situation?

"...Vick became an athletic celebrity at age 16. Since then, has anyone ever said the word "no" to him? Did he ever hear "no" from his coaches, his teachers, Virginia Tech, the Atlanta Falcons, Reebok, Nike, Rawlings, the National Football League, ESPN or any of the sports-media companies, all of which were only too happy to indulge Vick so long as it benefited them?"

A fair point, and probably a problem on a large scale when it comes to professional athletes. I don't completely agree with this sentiment, because there are many athletes who are in similar situations as Michael Vick, but are able to conduct themselves in a manner befitting to the rest of society. However, I can certainly agree with the idea that someone with poor guidance growing up can end up in a bad situation. Mike Tyson always is the first person that comes to mind when I think of similar situations. Tyson had all the potential in the world to be talked about as one of the all-time greats when his career was over, but Tyson's immaturity and lack of guidance led him down the wrong path, and instead he became a convicted criminal and more of a sideshow than a boxer.

What's interesting to me is that at no time does Easterbrook bring Vick's mother into the conversation. He spends his time talking about all these people who probably never said 'no' to him, but what about his mother? Aren't our parents supposed to be our primary source of guidance growing up? If there's anyone that should have been saying 'no', it's his mother. Considering how Michael's brother Marcus Vick's football career has progressed, I think it's feasible to suggest that early on Michael was not given a morally strong foundation to build upon when determining what's right and what is wrong.

"Next, I feel some sympathy for Vick because of the "send a message" aspect of the case."

"But even if other celebrity athletes have gotten away with too much in other instances, Vick's case must be treated on its own merits."

"Seven years ago, the NFL took little action against star Ray Lewis when he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in a case involving the deaths of two people. Even read "in the light most favorable," as lawyers say, what Lewis did was stand by watching as two acquaintances stabbed two people to death. Lewis served only 15 days in jail and the NFL fined him $250,000 for conduct detrimental to the league. Eventually, he was back signing lucrative endorsement contracts. He got off lightly."

"If Vick goes to jail and loses his NFL career for a first offense of cruelty to animals and gambling, while Lewis essentially got off scot-free for watching two human beings stabbed to death, that wouldn't be "sending a message." That would be a travesty of justice."

I neglected to mention Ray Lewis' name earlier with Simpson and Carruth because Easterbrook spent some time discussing it here. Lewis is probably also someone whose jersey I wouldn't be going out of my way to buy for my kid. I don't disagree that the penalty, both in the court system and the NFL, handed to Ray Lewis was absolutely ridiculous. I also agree with the idea that Vick's case shouldn't be about 'sending a message'. That being said, I don't feel that this situation is being treated as such, nor do I fell that it should have anything to do with Ray Lewis.

I think the primary reason that what happened with Ray Lewis is irrelevant here is because of Roger Goodell. Paul Tagliabue was commissioner at the time of Ray Lewis' punishment, and the decisions he made were inappropriate and nowhere near harsh enough. But the point is, he made them. Not Goodell. Considering Goodell's track record so far in his short tenure as commissioner (Pacman Jones, Tank Johnson, Chris Henry, etc.), I think there is little doubt Ray Lewis would have been dealt with in a harsher light. But he wasn't in charge then. He is now. And if Vick goes to jail for his crimes, than that is wholly appropriate, even if seemingly in contradiction to the Ray Lewis case (Easterbrook seems to imply that because Lewis got off Vick should too, otherwise it's a 'travesty of justice', like two wrongs make a right). And if Vick receives a lengthy suspension or even a ban from football, that too is wholly appropriate, and is completely consistent with everything Roger Goodell has done as commissioner.

This case isn't about sending a message. Goodell has already sent the message. Ask Pacman Jones. Ask Chris Henry. Ask Tank Johnson. The message has already been sent. Vick is just the next in line.

"Next, I feel sympathy for Vick because there is racial animus in the current turn of events."

"But don't you just sense there are loads of people who are happy to have the chance to condemn the first African-American quarterback who was drafted first overall -- via an accusation that has nothing to do with race?"

Going back to what I mentioned earlier about sensationalism in the media, here we have one of the most often used tactics--the race card. Animal abuse and gambling have absolutely nothing to do with race. Vick was controversial and disliked by many long before this happened. He was supposed to be an elite quarterback of the future, and instead has shown flashes of brilliance in an otherwise average career. I know I carry a certain amount of dislike for Vick as a player because I think he is very overrated and gets too much attention for someone who isn't anything but an above average QB in the NFL. But it has nothing to do with his race.

Just to play devil's advocate, let's think of another controversial QB--a white one, who might fit a similar profile; high expectations, for whatever reason is disliked by many. Let's go with Peyton Manning. Here you have a pedigree quarterback, one of the best of all-time, who has a lot of hate thrown his way because of his cocky demeanor and sometimes 'choice' words when discussing his teammates' performance. There is no doubt in my mind, that despite his popularity and success, the resulting backlash from an incident like this coming out about Manning would be very similar to what is happening with Vick.

You know why I think that? Let's bring up another recent heinous crime: the murder-suicide of Chris Benoit. Chris Benoit was one of the most respected, well-liked professional wrestlers in the entire industry, both by fans and from within. The shock and subsequent backlash was fierce, and the reaction towards him was very negative, despite the fact that he was a white pro wrestler. I won't pretend that racism doesn't exist in this day and age, but I also won't pretend that anytime something happens to a black person and becomes a big deal in the media, it's because of race, and not because of the merits of the situation.

"Next, I feel sympathy for Vick because he tripped into a 'summer scandal.'"

Give me a break. How can you feel bad for someone because their crime was discovered during 'slow news season'? I don't even know what to say to something like that. Do you feel bad for Tim Donaghey for getting caught in the summer? What about Jose Offerman hitting a minor league catcher with his bat and getting arrested? Should he have done it in the spring with the NBA and NHL playoffs going on so no one would notice?

"Next, I feel sympathy for Vick because he made his own problem worse."

"But lying makes things far worse. If the charges are true, had Vick come clean with the commissioner -- and trusted a good man, because Goodell is a good man -- Vick would be in Falcons camp today."

I don't understand this sentiment at all. Easterbrook feels bad for Vick for...lying to the NFL commissioner? Instead of confessing what he had done to the boss of your organization, opening up the possibility of working something out, through honest communication, Vick tries to lie his way out of hit, hides the truth from the commissioner, and...he feels sympathy for Vick because of it? (Again, I re-iterate that this is based on the charges being true, per Easterbrook's hypothesis) He had a chance to make the problem better, but knowingly made it worse. I don't see at all how that is a sympathetic action, and if anything is just more justification for those that hold contempt for him.

"Next, I feel sympathy for Vick because he apparently is getting questionable legal advice."

Do you know what multi-millionaires get to do? They are able to hire the best legal counsel in the world. Do you know what the best legal counsel in the world can do? Give you the best chance to avoid whatever legal consequences you face. Michael Vick is a multi-millionaire, and subsequently, it is assumed that he is spending a considerable amount of money on the best legal counsel possible. I see absolutely no reason how anyone can feel bad for Vick if he has poor legal counsel. He chose them, he chose to pay them a bunch of money to help him. I might feel bad for someone who is genuinely innocent of a crime, but is unable to successfully defend himself in court because he cannot afford a lawyer capable of handling his case. That is a 'travesty of justice'. Vick's millionaire lawyers making his situation worse, however, do not illicit quite the same emotional response.

"You don't need to be Dr. Freud to see the parallels between killing a dog that lost a fight and cutting an NFL player who had a bad game -- or shrugging as a soldier dies in the Iraq desert because the Pentagon didn't care that a corrupt defense contractor stole the money that was supposed to be used for armor."

Let's look at these 'parallels' a bit more:

-We have a dog being killed after losing a fight with another dog. The dog did not choose to fight, nor was it aware of the consequences of losing a fight. The dog is dependent on its owner for survival, and as such, the owner is responsible for what happens to the dog and is obligated to take care of it.

-An NFL player is cut from the team after having a bad game. The NFL is an elite organization full of elite football players. Its goal is to make money, and teams generally make money when they are winning. Therefore, success is often the desired outcome. Teams want the best of the best to have the best chance of succeeding. A player employed with a team has to compete at his highest level to stay with the team. If he fails to do so, he may be a liability to the team, at which point the team may feel he is a liability and release him.

-A soldier dies in Iraq. The soldier volunteered to join the army well aware of the possibility of going overseas and possibly dying in battle. The intricacies and the complexities involved in the bureaucracies of war spending and planning don't really compare to dogfighting, and the risk of dying in a war is there whether the appropriate armor is available to a soldier or not.

So, sorry for not being Dr. Freud, but I guess I just don't see the parallels. The first example involves a person taking control of a creature that is dependent on that person, and deciding whether it lives or dies. The other two examples involve people acting on their own accord and making their own decisions, and displaying possible consequences of their decisions. There really is very little in the way of parallels.

Instead of putting together a well thought out piece on the intricacies of the Michael Vick situation, and discussing the gray areas of the case and of Michael Vick that many may not consider when they judge him in their minds, Gregg Easterbrook comes across as trying to find reasons to vindicate Vick when they don't exist. This column almost reads as someone going against the grain of what everyone else thinks because it's 'edgy'. His examples for the most part are poorly thought out, and some are just wrong. I fully believe in the idea of having some sympathy for Vick in this situation, but I don't think Easterbrook will make believers out of many with his writing.

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