Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Michael Vick: Crime and Punishment in the NFL

Frank Deford considered Michael Vick's future in the NFL today on NPR's morning edition. Although Vick is an extraordinarily talented professional athlete, he faces an uncertain future, much like others just released from prison.

Follow the link to hear Deford's comments. Here's a text of what he has to say:

When someone gets out of jail we always say he has "paid his debt to society." It's sort of an odd expression, isn't it? In jail you've simply been removed from society. It's when you get out that the bill comes due, when you're not supposed to engage again in whatever it was that got you into jail in the first place. If so, that's when society profits.

Well, it's a sure bet that now that Michael Vick is out of the slammer, he will never again get involved in dogfighting. The question is, instead, what will we allow him to do? Or specifically, will we allow him to play football again, the one thing he did
very well indeed?

Perhaps not a single team in the National Football League will want him. Vick would be the cynosure of hatred, for he is considered to be despicable. Heinous, wicked ... can you live with that, too? Inhumane, which may be the worst thing a human can be called.

But before any team may risk all the vitriol and agitation that bringing Vick to camp would produce, first the commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, must end Vick's indefinite suspension — a decision that Goodell will make after July 20, when society's criminal sentence for Vick officially ends. The key, it seems, is for the commissioner to meet with Vick and decide if he is properly remorseful.

That strikes me as a perfectly pointless exercise, a show trial. Of course Vick will say that he's remorseful. And so what? He's already lied to Goodell's face. Why possibly believe him now? Make the decision, Mr. Commissioner, without going through the sham of a heart-to-heart, face-to-face Park Avenue photo op.

Many people say that even though Vick has been incarcerated, that he's bankrupt and disgraced, he also deserves further internal league punishment, because he has dishonored the "privilege" of playing in the NFL. Oh, please. Athletics is the prime
meritocracy. If you're good enough, if you play by the rules of the game, you earn a place in the game. It's nonsense to act as if Commissioner Goodell should be some pigskin St. Peter at the gridiron gates.

If anything, I think a better argument can be made that Michael Vick's very visibility is for the good. So let him play. Did you know, for example, that since he was indicted in 2007, twenty-three tougher state and federal laws dealing with dogfighting have either been enacted or strengthened?

Vick is a role model. I don't mean that facetiously. He is a role model for having it all and throwing it all away through stupidity, arrogance and sheer evil. If he gets to step on the field, he will remind us of how young athletes can so easily fall from grace. He will remind us of shame and hubris. He will remind us of cruelty to animals. He will be paying his debt to society by helping us remember what we should not

What may be lost in Deford's comments is that before Vick can repay his debt to society by becoming again a productive participant in it, the NFL as a community will have to set aside whatever residual anger or fear it has, and permit him to do so. Just as we need to permit others who complete their sentences to rejoin our own communities.

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