Michael Vick has signed a $100 million contract to play for the Philadelphia Eagles over the next six years. Coming on the heels of a lengthy prison sentence and status as a third-string quarterback for the Eagles just a season ago, this mega-contract is part of, according to Ashley Fox at ESPN, “an amazing, redemptive tale.”
In the days surrounding the new contract with the Eagles, in fact, all over ESPN radio and TV, commentators, professional athletes, coaches, and pundits have been proclaiming not only redemption for Vick, but also that Vick’s story is a shining example of the America that allows and celebrates second chances.
Vick is in rare company, having garnered a second $100 million contract in his disjointed career. While this contract may deserve some closer inspection—NFL contracts tend to be more fan-fare than fact once the guaranteed money is revealed and once the realities of releasing players is acknowledged—I want here to explore whether or not Vick’s apparent story of redemption reveals something about America—something I suspect we’d rather not admit.
Vick’s Fall: An Untold Story
During the 2011 NBA finals, I examined the stark difference in narratives around LeBron James and Dirk Nowitski—characterizations of James as lazy but gifted and of Nowitzki as a working-class hero. Jemele Hill, for ESPN, raises a similar concern about coverage of Vick when compared to the media darling and popular Tim Tebow as well as the heavily tattooed Chris Anderson. Hill notes that Tebow and Anderson, as white athletes, draw significantly different commentaries than Vick or Cam Newton, both African American (referencing the comments from Carolina Panther’s owner Jerry Richardson about Newton maintaining “no tattoos, no piercings and. . .a very nice haircut”), concluding:
“We try to pretend these double standards don’t exist, hurling the phrase ‘race card’ at one another that cheapens any kind of contextual racial discussion. But the double standards aren’t going away anytime soon.”
And here is where I believe the full Vick story has been hastily ignored. I want to take Hill’s speculations about Vick a step further.
What if Vick, years ago before his arrest and prison sentence, had been a hunter, like many professional athletes, celebrities, and wealthy CEOs—shooting and killing wild game, even on organized safaris that include stocked and corralled game and orchestrated hunts that insure those paying for the experience bag a big kill?
Vick, like dozens and dozens of other athletes, would have never found himself in prison for animal cruelty. But in the real world, Vick happened to choose a violent treatment of animals that is socially shunned (and rightfully so), while hunting remains socially embraced (although in many ways little different than Vick’s crime).
If we decriminalized marijuana, if we leveled the sentences for crack and powdered cocaine, how would our prisons change?
As Hill charges above, I have to echo that we pretend that our laws are somehow above our prejudices, assumptions, and judgmental nature steeped in norms that have been raised to the level of truths. Our laws are not truths, but often windows into who has power in our society—and who does not.
With Vick, instead of focusing on the act of dog fighting, however, I think we failed to examine our expectations for Vick and other men who perform socially acceptable violence for our entertainment. When our athletes are violent the way we endorse, and when that violence generates entertainment and above all else money, we smile, pat them on the backs, and praise their physical gifts.
When our college athletes keep their violence on the field and bow to our academic demands that shackle them to the classroom in order for them to participate in sport, all is well.
When many of those athletes, however, never graduate from college or enter the professional ranks, we all turn our heads—except to shake our heads when they fail—as we knew they would—and find themselves, like Vick, in prison.
Yes, when they cross cultural lines—arbitrary lines determined by the ruling elite—they must be punished. But these arbitrary lines remain socio-economic and racial—no matter how often we claim otherwise, as has been the case with the redemption of Vick.
In our cult of individualism, we want to ascribe all the blame for Vick’s fall to Vick himself but we want to praise our forgiving culture now for a redemption story that proves America is a land of not just opportunity, but second chances.
Vick’s failure was not all his, and his redemption is certainly not evidence of redemptive America.
The Story: Vick, Tillman, and Lynch as Pawns
The evening before the news reported Vick’s new contract with the Eagles, I sat watching The Tillman Story on cable. Previously, I have written about watching Pat Tillman’s brother Richard on Bill Maher’s Real Time, connecting the tragedy of Tillman’s death by friendly fire and the government cover-up of those events with the misleading discourse about education in the U.S.:
“Captain America wears a mask for a reason: The myth is easier to look at, easier to tell about than the truth hidden underneath—whether we are asking about and looking hard at the death of a complex man, Pat Tillman, or the complex influences of poverty on the lives and learning of children across our country.”
Now, with Vick’s story and Tillman’s story before me, I have to add that Vick and Tillman share much more than being popular and impressive athletes, more than sharing lives spent in acts of violence we applaud and honor (sport for both, and sport and war for Tillman); they both tell us something important and disturbing about America.
Vick’s tale of redemption parallels the story fabricated around Pat Tillman’s death as well as the manipulated and filmed rescue of Jessica Lynch—Vick, Tillman, and Lynch are all pawns.
The real story about Vick, as with Tillman and Lynch, is that his redemption is a central plot element in the wealth of others.
Before Vick fell from grace as a dog fighter, his jersey was the top-selling jersey in the NFL. After prison, Vick was seen as lucky to secure a third-string quarterback for the Eagles.
Then Donovan McNabb was traded and Kevin Kolb was injured, leading to Vick turning in a spectacular performance that propelled him into the starting job at Philadelphia and once again to the top of the NFL by his performance and by the apparent willingness of the public to forgive.
With Tillman and Lynch, we should still be asking, Who fights our wars? And, Why are we in a state of permanent war?
With Vick, the question should be, Who is benefiting from Vick and the culturally accepted violence he and the rest of the NFL provide for us each week throughout the fall and winter—who is poised to profit from his redemption story?
Although in some fundamentally different ways, I admit, like Tillman and Lynch, Vick is a pawn (a well-compensated pawn), a convenient celebrity outlier, for the benefit of the elite who both create and sustain the norms that insure the inequity that sits beneath claims of redemption and second chances.
When Vick was useful to distract the public about violence (away from the NFL and toward dog fighting), he was imprisoned. When Vick is useful to perpetuate the America Dream, he gets a $100 million contract.
In Michael Vick’s America, it is redemption of the pawns.