Michael Vick's Dog Days

There are two things wrong in the disgusting tale of Michael Vick. The first is in his character, and the second is in the silence of his peers. 

Let’s shed no tears for Michael Vick. Yes, it’s sad that a star athlete threw his life away by sponsoring and participating in dog fighting.  But it was his choice. There is some profound defect in his character that enabled Vick to turn a quiet Virginia neighborhood in to an industrial plant that manufactured cruelty.

Are we really surprised? 

It was only seven years ago that — in one season — two NFL players, Rae Carruth and Ray Lewis were charged with murder.  We’ve become inured at the players’ criminal escapades.  Drugs, alcohol, drunk driving and spousal abuse may not be the norm, but they are so frequent that they usually aren’t sufficiently newsworthy to demand more than a few column inches in a local paper. 

Michael Vicks’ offense hits us from a new angle. There’s a different sort of evil afoot here, something beyond what we have come to ignore.  No, it’s not as evil or as serious as murder or child abuse or rape. The law differentiates them from the crimes Vick is scheduled to plead guilty to on Monday.  But there is nevertheless something especially awful about it: how long it went on, the vast scale of it and the fact that someone we had admired could be so comfortable in his cruelty to dogs. More than fifty pit bulls seized at Vick’s home are scheduled to be put to death because no one was dumb enough to want to adopt the Vick-trained fighting machines.

Vick is accused of sponsoring dog fights and moving dogs in interstate commerce for dog fighting purposes.  The crime is not new, but only rarely prosecuted at the federal level.  David Burnham is a director of Syracuse University’s “TRAC” program. TRAC analyzes the Department of Justice’s prosecution statistics. He told me that between Fiscal Year 2002 and the first half of FY 2007, Justice had only “disposed of” six cases under the law Vick is being prosecuted for violating.  (And “disposed of” doesn’t mean obtained convictions. Some of the cases had been dropped for lack of prosecutorial resources or evidence.)  In short, something about the Vick case made it worth the federal prosecutor’s attention. Maybe it was bigger and more widespread.  Maybe because Vick is a high-profile defendant. Or maybe because the proofs were so numerous and clear that the prosecutors believed — with apparent good reason — they’d have an easy win.

The facts that Vick’s co-defendants have already admitted to in their plea deals say that Vick participated in the worst of it, personally killing some of the dogs who didn’t win, or didn’t seem brutal enough to place in the ring.  Being the last to plead out, Vick will get the worst of the deals the federal prosecutor grants.  And Vick will do hard time:  you can take that to the bank.

Vic’s plea — whether or not US District Court Judge Henry Hudson accepts it — will only be the beginning of the end for Vick. (And do remember that, after he considers the evidence, Judge Hudson may decide that Vick’s deal is too lenient.  Federal gambling charges could be added, and Vick may yet have to stand trial if he rejects a stiffer sentence as part of the plea deal.) 

In any event, Vick will probably later face state charges in Virginia and South Carolina.  If convicted there as well, there will be no comebacks for Vick.  His football career will be over.  As well it should be.  We who love the NFL — and I’ve been a dedicated fan from the age of 12 when my dad took me to my first New York Giants game — need to see it cleanse itself of this mess even though Vick’s  peers may yet oppose his banishment from the game. 

That responsibility shouldn’t be the owners alone.  It is well past time for the players themselves — through the NFL Players Association — to take action themselves.  These are the men who we admire, who we pay exorbitant ticket prices to see, whose recommendations we use to buy sports products, cars, clothes and such.  And all of whom couldn’t earn their huge paychecks if we declined to do so.

Which brings us to the second thing missing in the Vick case.

Vick’s peers — at least from the NFL — aren’t saying anything.  Our calls to NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw were unsuccessful in reaching him or in getting any comment from the NFLPA.  Perhaps they are content with the defense of Vick from a basketball star whose character may be as defective as Vick’s.

According to a Wednesday Breitbart report, NY Knicks guard Stephon Marbury said that Vick is, “…a good human being” who, “…fell into a bad situation.”  Marbury also said, “I think, you know, we don’t say anything about people who shoot deer or shoot other animals. You know, from what I hear, dog fighting is a sport. It’s just behind closed doors.”

Set aside Marbury’s ignorance of the differences between hunting — a lawful act, in which cruelty to animals is abhorred — and dog fighting. His willingness to excuse Vick so easily and so totally because he “fell into a bad situation” says all we need to know about Marbury’s broken moral compass. 

We need to hear — loudly and clearly — from the NFL Players’ Association.  The players — the people who we support by watching them avidly every Sunday afternoon and Monday night through the season — owe it to us to cleanse their own ranks by condemning Vick and terminating his membership in the NFLPA. 

It’s right and proper for the NFL owners, after conducting their own investigation, to ban Vick permanently or at least for some years after he is released from whatever jail in which his last sentence is served. But the players need to take a stand.  How long will they allow people such as Vick to remain in good standing among them? In truth, the players should act more quickly than the owners.  Once Vick enters his plea, he is guilty.  There’s no reason to wait longer than for Judge Hudson to accept the plea.  Once he does, the NFLPA should terminate Vick’s membership forthwith, and for good.

We, the fans, don’t expect the NFL to be comprised of plaster saints. But the players need to show that they are capable of moral judgment: that they are as connected to the fans as their endless television commercials pretend.  They believe they should be paid the millions they receive for being able to run, block, pass and kick.  But they should remember that their talents are only as valuable as we make them. Stand up, gentlemen, and speak out.  We are waiting.