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As Long as We Remember...

January 20, 2011

Dogs and double standards

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

How does one defend the practice of dog fighting and animal cruelty? Simple answer: One doesn’t!


Michael Vick has traveled the full arc of human experience. He started life as a child of poverty and desperation. Some might consider his humble beginnings an excuse for future conduct; they’d be wrong.


Southern Virginia’s coast includes lovely Atlantic beaches, a huge and impressive U.S. Navy presence, and some dangerous crime-ridden public housing communities. It was there that Michael Vick’s journey began.


As has been the case with some of our nation’s most talented professional athletes, the motivation to escape the bonds of poverty and the repetition of the cycle that keeps people pinned to their past is a powerful engine that drives athletic performance.


Such was the case with young Vick. A multi-sport high school athlete, the Virginia Tech Hokies beckoned. A full-ride scholarship offered Vick the ticket to national stardom on the football field. To say he took advantage of that chance understates reality; he grabbed that opportunity and rode it all the way to the National Football League draft.


That guy, who had grasped the chance to escape a predetermined failure, was now a multi-millionaire rookie for the Atlanta Falcons. Without trying to play amateur psychologist, suffice it to say that history is littered with young men who followed a similar path only to be overwhelmed at the reality of instant fame and fortune.


His amazing skills on the field proved Arthur Blank – the team’s owner – a genius in acquiring talent. The Falcons chose Vick with the first pick in the 2001 draft. Watching him in his prime was akin to hearing Ray Charles play blues piano, witnessing Salvador Dali paint, or eating your first slice of thin crust, New York-style, wood-fired pizza.


Even without 52 other superstar players, Vick’s skill led the Falcons to competitive heights unfamiliar to the team before his hire. His jerseys were one of the league’s best sellers, and not just in Georgia. Thousands of little kids, all over the country, were wearing his iconic number 7 and running wild on sandlots. Vick’s playing style was a thrilling mix of passing, scrambling, and sprinting for long gains just when it seemed he was in the grasp of an opposing defender.


It’s that rise, those skills, and the national attention that accompanied his ride to the top of the sports world that makes his fall so stunning. While Vick was searing his image into consciousness of the modern football fan, and while he was accumulating millions in investments and possessions, a darker side of his existence was in full bloom.


Hidden from the world on his expansive farm in south central Virginia, Michael Vick and his entourage of friends from the old neighborhood were breeding, raising, and fighting pit bull terriers. The details read like a horror novel; suffice it to say that our national conscience was sullied irreparably by talk of rape stands, drowning and electrocution.


As is almost always the case, the piper will be paid. For someone who tortures, terrorizes, and kills animals, the payment is, and should be, very harsh. In Vick’s case, it was a 23-month incarceration in the federal prison in Fort Leavenworth, KS. Not a state or county lockup, but arguably one the most dangerous correctional facilities in the nation. In the end, he served the full sentence, 21 months in prison and 2 months in home confinement.


There is no argument over the fact that Michael Vick was involved in some of the most horrific and despicable acts of animal cruelty ever documented. If he suffered from some psychological or behavioral abnormality that caused him to maim and kill, we could at least process the horror. Instead, it was for sport and money, making it all seem so much more deplorable and outrageous.


So, why the Vick history lesson? The reaction to his release, rehabilitation and resurgence as a professional athlete by the animal rights community is what makes this story compelling.


He served his full sentence. He has fulfilled a promise he made to the national Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, serving as an on-demand spokesman for young people. Vick has willingly crisscrossed the country, sharing a traveling message of why man has a special responsibility to care for four-legged creatures.


At the same time, Michael Vick has re-emerged as an NFL superstar, now leading the Philadelphia Eagles with that same set of stunning skills from eight years ago. In addition, he now demonstrates a maturity and judgment he lacked as a younger man, at least on the football field.


Everywhere he goes, everything he does is overshadowed by the voices of animal rights activists. It seems as though many animal lovers cannot, or will not, accept that a man who commits a crime, is convicted, and serves his sentence deserves the chance to redeem himself.


On some level, it is a nagging concern, even for someone who is not a committed animal rights advocate. Many of us fall into the category of dog lover, at least the one(s) that we love, feed, and care for at home. Can Michael Vick move beyond the horrible acts of his past, and should he be allowed to return to the pinnacle of American sports legend?


Some activists are so blinded by their own biases that they clamor for banishment, suggesting Vick doesn’t deserve the right to a multi-million dollar playing contract, sponsorship deals and fame. What if Vick had been a really good bus driver? How about a really proficient carpenter? Would PETA call for his prohibition from those fields? Should his past conduct equate to denying him an income commensurate with the profession he excels in?


What he did is and will always be a sick and nauseating chapter in his life, and frankly, in our lives also. As Vick endeavors to fully rehabilitate, he should be watched and evaluated. Much like others who committed heinous crimes, we don’t just blindly accept it won’t happen again, we trust but verify.


That said, we are a nation of believers. We believe in justice, fair and equal for all. We believe when you are convicted of crime, you serve that sentence. We also believe in the simple concept that every person, having been convicted and served their sentence, deserves the right to live a life having learned the lesson that justice taught them.


If we mean what we say as a society, then Michael Vick deserves every chance to play football, excelling both on the field and in life. The fact that he throws a ball well is not a justification for PETA’s illogical wrath.


[Writer’s note: The writer willingly acknowledges that he has been a fan of the Philadelphia Eagles for his whole life, even when the Redskins dominated the NFC East and all of his friends were celebrating Eagles mediocrity.]


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