Saturday, November 20, 2010

You Gotta Be a Football Hero To Get Along With Your Parole Officer

Sports, and make that quadruple for sports journalism, doesn't do nuance. There's no room for gray in its zero-sum universe of primary colors. Naturally, this means that sports (again, quadruple for sports journalism) frequently makes an ass of itself.

Michael Vick, quarterback and ex-convict, had a very good game last Monday night against the Redskins. This has led some people who really should know better, like ESPN columnist Rick Reilly and, rather more ominously, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, to make it known they think Vick is a changed man. That heinous crime he did time for? He's really sorry. Michael's getting his life together now. He's become kind of a spiritual presence in pro football Just look at his presence in the pocket if you don't believe us.

There should be a typographical icon for an about an hour's worth of sighing. If there is and I don't know about it, please insert. It is deplorable but inevitable that Vick's 2010 on-field success would bring back what I might actually hate worst about sports -- my old enemy, mankind's enemy really, Scoreboard Morality.

For the first half of the 2010 season, Vick has been a far better quarterback than he was before he spent over a year as the guest of the state for (never forget), a particularly disgusting and awful crime. He's certainly been one of the best QBs in the league, and the most fun to watch by a wide margin. Since Vick plays for the team I grew up rooting for, the Eagles, his performance has mildly improved my attitude towards the universe this autumn.

I'm not what anyone would call a hardcore Eagles fan. For one thing, I haven't even been arrested at a game yet. It will surprise no one that true Eagle fans have wholly embraced Scoreboard Morality when it comes to Vick. For a playoff berth, true Eagle fans would replace Andy Reid with Pol Pot. That's who they are. But it's important to remember Eagle fans are only an exaggerated caricature of what all NFL fans are, different in degree, not in kind. Don't try to tell me that if Vick had been the Pats' backup and Tom Brady went down, then Vick lit up the league as he has in Philly, the felon wouldn't be just as acclaimed here as he is in my old home town. The most professional nasty jackasses among our talk show hosts would be kissing Vick's cleats. Scoreboard Morality has way more power than Lord Voldemort.

It is my destiny to have wound up with two "formers" in my life as regards to sports. I am no longer a sports journalist, and try as I might, I can't go back completely to the mindset I had as a fan before I covered the damn games. I exist betwixt and between those two worlds. Sometimes it's irksome, but I think it's the perfect spot from which to look at Michael Vick.

My rule as a columnist was "don't be afraid to grasp the obvious" so let's start there. There is considerable tension within our society about persons in Vick's situation who AREN'T gifted athletes or famous people, who are, in fact, just schlub ex-cons, the stupid, selfish losers who commit most crimes. Society rightly resents and fears those folks for what they did. At the same time, society more or less recognizes that not letting ex-cons try to reintegrate their lives into society's approved mix only guarantees they'll revert to active cons, a high enough possibility already.

There are millions of Americans, many of them sports fans, who are so repulsed by the degraded act of sadistic violence in which Vick was involved that they will never forgive him and wish he was failing as a player so they didn't have to think about him. But after the initial outcry when the Eagles signed Vick, there have been very few voices stating he shouldn't be allowed to ply his trade. I think it's fair to say that many of those Americans believe Vick can't change, is bound to get in trouble with the law once again, and are looking forward to seeing that happen.

Those antifans could be right. But honesty compels us to state that Scoreboard Morality could be right, too. Vick COULD be a changed man. The one thing prison gives prisoners is plenty of time for self-examination. Maybe Vick looked inside himself, didn't care for what he found, and has begun the process of cleansing his soul and doing what he can to make amends. There are libraries full of criminology research which states that the odds of that happening are longer than those for the Bills meeting the Panthers in the Super Bowl, but it does happen to some people. Only a fool is so cynical as to never believe in happy endings.

My slight personal interaction with Vick as a reporter, well before the dog fighting deal, offers this slight support for the idea Vick has changed. It is possible introspection had an enormous impact on Vick the person because it was beyond obvious talking to him in 2002-2004 that Vick had never had a moment's introspection in his life. He was a blank slate. It would be unfair to state Vick came off as a dope, but it would be accurate to state that he came off as a guy who hadn't needed to use much of whatever brainpower nature had given him.

Nor did Vick project the strong personality than, in one way or another, almost all successful NFL quarterbacks do. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady couldn't be more different in many ways as people, but in their presence, you know you are dealing with someone who's their own man. Vick didn't come as a leader -- just a jock, a bland, blah jock.

In short, I have little trouble believing that Vick fell into crime because he was too weak and too thoughtless to see that what he was dealing with was evil. That's not an excuse that should impress anyone, but it does leave open the possibility that the shock of incarceration changed Vick.

The opposite possibility remains wide-open, too. Michael Vick could still be a depraved sadist because that's what he's always been and always will be. Evil may be central to his identity. People don't change just because it's their interests to do so, or because it makes the rest of us feel better. All my sportswriting life, I avoided as much as I could writing about athletes attempting to be recovering substance abusers. That's a very hard path to walk, and I didn't want to write something celebratory that would look bad for both the athlete and me if said athlete fell off the wagon in spectacular public fashion.

I covered John Daly when he was drinking and when he was sober, and the sad truth was, in either condition, Daly lives every waking moment with demons that'd scare the shit out of any of us. That's another shade of gray situation with which the Crayola world of sports commentary couldn't handle too well.

Is Michael Vick a saved soul, an unrepentant villain, or somewhere foundering between those two extremes? I dunno. That's the point, nobody does. I'll bet Vick doesn't know, at least I hope he doesn't think he does. Rick Reilly and Roger Goodell sure don't. You can't judge a person's worth as a human being by their yards per pass attempt. Isn't it enough to say it's nice to see Vick playing so well, because performances by gifted players make watching football fun? Can't the world just say it HOPES Vick is going to redeem himself?

The older I get, the more I realize judgment is something best left suspended where human beings are concerned. The best rule of thumb for Happy Endings for troubled souls in sports is the same rule fans learn about Home Teams at an early age.

Root for both of them with all your heart. Just never bet on 'em.


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