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Commentary: Should Michael Vick Be Allowed to Play Pro Football?

The anger over Michael Vick's new contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers has a lot to say about who gets forgiven and who doesn't in this country.

Chris Hall  |  Aug 27th 2015


The commemoration of National Dog Day yesterday meant that there was more dog news in the media than even we could keep track of. Everyone, dog owners and otherwise, had their own way of making note of the day, from posting pictures of current or past dogs to well-researched think pieces on the role of dogs in society.

For four women in Pittsburgh, the best way to observe National Dog Day was to stage a protest against the signing of Michael Vick to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Natalie Awesh, a Steelers fan who holds season tickets, told ESPN why she was protesting: “This move is embarrassing. It’s upsetting. I’m angry,” she said. “I’m not going to be able to go to the games and have fun and watch with my family. The season is ruined for me as long as he’s on the team.”

dogs-fighting

Fighting Dogs via Shutterstock

Yesterday’s protest may have been small — tiny, actually — but there are thousands of people whose sympathies are with them. For those of us who know more about dogs than football, Vick’s name conjures up only one thing: His 2007 conviction for participating in a dog-fighting ring. Vick was sentenced under state and federal charges and wound up spending about two years in prison. Since then, he’s been trying to get back into his old career and make people associate his name with football instead of dog abuse. In 2011, he publicly supported federal anti-dog-fighting legislation, and he’s gone on speaking tours for the Humane Society’s campaigns against dog fighting. The question is, is it enough?

This certainly isn’t the first time since his release that Vick has triggered controversy. Last year when he signed a one-year contract with the New York Jets, the same issues flared up. At the time, ASPCA President and CEO Matthew Bershadker wrote in the New York Post:

It became clear over the course of the investigation that this was not a crime of passion or a case of obliviousness. Michael Vick was fully involved in a six-year pattern of illegal activity that included dogs being savagely electrocuted, drowned, and beaten to death.

We fully acknowledge Vick has “done his time” and even participated in some public outreach, but that does not erase the crime.

We’re not motivated simply by a desire to see Vick further punished. But dog-fighting participants and spectators — including veterinarians, coaches, lawyers, judges and teachers — carry a shame that is critical to the blood sport’s demise.

As a society, we don’t handle the concept of forgiveness very well. We either demand that it be given completely or we withhold it just as completely. Worse, it’s often portrayed as something that a person’s victims must do in order to be better than those who did them wrong.

Vick’s attempts to atone for the sadism and brutality of his dog-fighting operation have actually been much better and more thorough than most. Last week, rapper, producer, and seller of overpriced headphones Dr. Dre issued a statement to the New York Times apologizing for his 1991 assault on journalist Dee Barnes.

“Twenty-five years ago, I was a young man drinking too much and in over my head with no real structure in my life. However, none of this is an excuse for what I did. I’ve been married for 19 years, and every day I’m working to be a better man for my family, seeking guidance along the way,” he said. “I’m doing everything I can so I never resemble that man again.” It was eloquent but a bit formal, and both Dee Barnes and Dre’s former fiancee Miche’lle, who’s accused him of brutal physical abuse during their relationship, found it lacking.

Dog in Cage via Shutterstock

Dog in Cage via Shutterstock

According to a 1989 police report, actor Sean Penn tied his then-wife Madonna to a chair and violently abused her for nine hours. Unlike Dr. Dre or Michael Vick, he hasn’t made any public appeal for forgiveness, and none has been asked of him. Most people barely flinch when he’s nominated for an award.

The point is that we are very selective about who we demand redemption from, and who we give it to. I’m not making an argument for simply acting like none of Vick’s crimes ever happened. On the contrary, I have a very deep and visceral reaction when I read about Vick’s dog-fighting operation. Bershadker’s words really resonate with me on a gut level. I don’t think that I will ever be able to think of him as anything other than the guy who abused all those dogs, especially since my understanding of football is about equal to my understanding of verb conjugation in ancient Sumerian.

But at the same time, looking at him against the background of people like Dr. Dre and Sean Penn, I feel ambivalent about trying to chase him out of every contract he ever signs. His contract with the Steelers is only for one year, and then he’ll be looking for yet another gig. I’m definitely not willing to forget about Michael Vick’s past, but I am willing — cautiously — to let him get on with his life, especially if he doesn’t forget about his past either.

What do you think? Is it worth protesting against Michael Vick, or should he be allowed to keep playing?

Read more about the Michael Vick dog-fighting story on Dogster: