This post is about Michael Vick and how his case provides occasion to talk about much larger issues than sports. I want to use as a point of departure because Vick gives me the opportunity to talk about so many issues at once: ethics, crime and punishment, business and football. (Side note: you ever notice how lists with an odd amount of items produce more syntactical and somatic pleasure than ones with an even amount?) These issues are interconnected, no doubt. Much of the speculation regarding Vick in terms of where and when he will play will surely be put to a rest with time; however, allow me to enter the punditry fray here, and give you my two cents.
First off, I should say that Vick should be allowed to play in the NFL right away–that is, as soon as a team wants him on the field. Notice I said the NFL as opposed to the UFL, the United Football League that plays its first season this year. Let’s not forget that Michael Vick was a franchise player who signed a $150 million contract with the Falcons. He is a unique talent. I understand that he has not played for two years and will need some time to get acclimated to the speed of the game, learn a playbook, and gel with teammates. But surely he can do that in the NFL. There is no reason to go to a league where he will probably dominate against talent so inferior to the NFL; it won’t show his ability against NFL-caliber players. To wit, Vick can get back into football shape in practice and, at some point, in situational moments in regular season games.
Moreover, I find it laughable that pundits and sportswriters argue that he is not at this point worth a roster spot. I would challenge them to name 15 third string quarterbacks in the NFL. Why? Not only because I would win this challenge, but because it shows that Vick is worthy of, at the very least, being a team’s third-string QB. A great friend made the point that 3rd-string quarterbacks can’t play unless the two above him in the depth chart get hurt. To that I say, “Point taken and perfect!” Vick does not need to be on the field as a quarterback right away, in any event. But instead he can do what 3rd strings do: practice, learn the offense, and push his teammates. Then, he can work his way up to 2nd string or, depending on the team, 1st string. Furthermore, Vick can be a slash-type player: he can spend most of his time practicing as a QB, but then have packages in games in which he runs wide receiver options, “wildcat” stuff, or even return a punt or two.
But that is the football stuff and I can go on and on about why Vick should (and probably will) be onsomeone’s NFL team in the next few weeks. There is still the fact that, as many reporters have noted, it is the owners who are afraid of signing Vick. They are hesitant, according to reports, because of PETA and protests from some fans. Really? This cannot be serious, can it? The mighty NFL is worried about PETA? Somehow, I don’t think these calling lists (that of the NFL and that of PETA) overlap much. And PETA protesters aren’t going to stop people from going to see an NFL game. The NFL is, without a doubt, the single most popular cultural institution in the United States. It is not movies, it is not baseball, it is not theatre. And, if Vick comes in and helps a team, which I think he would, many fans would get over their “moral aversion” to Vick’s actions. (There are also, from a business standpoint, those fans who don’t give a shit about animals or are ambivalent to what Vick did and who will then run out and get Vick jerseys and other merchandise. I firmly believe this crowd vastly outnumbers those who would stop watching the NFL or rooting for a team that Vick plays for.)
Finally, I said at the start that Vick should play in the NFL right away. That means that the commissioner need not mete out any more game suspensions. (He has already missed two seasons). I don’t know what missing 4 to 6 games will teach a man who spent two years onlockdown, lost a $150 million contract plus endorsements, and went bankrupt. The commissioner of football needs to realize that an NFL suspension cannot be the final word here, but rather State punishment should. I will say, though, if a guy tests positive for a little weed in his piss and gets a negligible fine from the State, suspending him some games and taking money out of his pocket is fine. That might actually teach him (or someone else) something. But after spending two years in prison/house arrest, giving out game suspensions is simply piling on. All it does is affirm the commissioner’s unchecked and absolute power.
In fact, the Vick case is only a gilded example of the problem with post-incarceration policy in general: severely limiting the ability of people who have served their time to start to work their way back into society and get their lives back in order. As economists and sociologists have shown, many people end up back in jail because they do not have the opportunities to take the necessary steps to turn their lives around because of the ridiculous stigma attached to conviction. (We need not get into how felons have their voting rights stripped.) I am not saying that if Vick is suspended for the first 1/3 of the season he will commit another offense; what I am saying, though, is that we as a society have a hyper-tendency to pile on and make life nearly impossible for those who are putatively “rehabilitated.” Along with their own hardwork and diligence, those who come out of prison need our support and love in order to work their way back into society. Penal colonies are, supposedly, a thing of the past; those who come out of prisons live among us. We need to stop building structural and ideological islands where they exist alone.