In our sweaty, panting, twenty-four-hour media culture, "presumption of innocence" seems almost quaint, the legal equivalent of a potbellied stove.
This is certainly the feel of things in the curious case of the People vs. Michael Vick. The Atlanta Falcons quarterback was indicted Tuesday on federal charges of conspiracy for alleged involvement in a dogfighting operation in Virginia. The media have released the hounds.
In what can charitably be called a sprint to judgment, MSNBC's Michael Ventre opines that Vick should be "suspended for life" from the NFL: As if he has a desk inside the federal prosecutor's office, Ventre writes, "When the general public starts to hear gory tidbits about the savagery that was allegedly condoned by the Falcons' quarterback, he will be persona non grata in society, let alone the NFL."
Ventre's not the only one in attack mode. Greg Couch of the Chicago Sun-Times has a piece called "Put the Bite on Vick Now." Mark Starr of Newsweek wants him benched immediately. And sports radio has been atwitter with coverage that can charitably be called repugnant. America Online's highly trafficked Fanhouse discussion board turned ugly. The offending posts have now been scrubbed from the board, but when I checked earlier this week, there were calls to "hang him from a tree" as well as a liberal use of the N-word. (Please tell the NAACP that it's not just rappers who say that.)
The case is no longer just about what Vick did or did not do on the property he owned in Virginia that housed an alleged dogfighting operation. It's about celebrity, racism, the South and the precarious position of the African-American athlete. As someone in the Atlanta sports-radio universe described the local populace, "Half hate him. Half don't. Why? He's a black quarterback who represents hip-hop culture."
Michael Vick is in a world of trouble. If convicted, the career of an NFL marquee player--the only quarterback ever to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season--now stands in serious jeopardy.
As sports legal expert Lester Munson explained on ESPN.com, "The government's case includes evidence that Vick and his cohorts 'tested' pit bulls for ferocity. If the dogs failed the test, the indictment charges, they were executed by hanging or drowning. In one case, with Vick present, the document says a dog was slammed to the ground until it was dead. In another incident, a dog was soaked with a hose and then electrocuted. Those aren't the sort of transgressions that lead to probation and community service. It's the kind of behavior that results in punishment, and the punishment will be jail time."
Fighting dogs is an ugly, brutal business, and none of this is to excuse anything that may or may not have happened. But whether Vick is found guilty or not, the self-righteousness of the media and the many Vick-bashers is staggering.
American culture celebrates violent sports--especially football--and is insensitive to the consequences that the weekly scrum has on the bodies and minds of its players. We love a sport where any given play can be a player's last. We accept that after 44-year-old former Philadelphia Eagle Andre Waters committed suicide, the autopsy revealed that his brain resembled someone with early-stage Alzheimer's due to repeated concussions. We ignore that a Hall of Fame running back, the once-unstoppable Earl Campbell, can barely get out of a car without assistance. We forget that Johnny Unitas, the greatest quarterback to play the game, couldn't grip a football by the time of his death.
But in Vick's case, when this media-massaged package of NFL fury fails to remain safely contained on the field, the sports establishment throws up its hands in horror.
I asked one player why some NFL players are attracted to dogfighting, and he said, "It's exciting, it's violent and it's high-impact." That could easily be an ad for the NFL. Another player, when I asked him about dogfighting, called it a case of "trickle-down violence," a pastime in which players make the journey from controlled to controller.
Whether Vick is guilty is for the courts to decide. Meanwhile, let's turn the magnifying glass on a society that condones so much violence in war, film and sport. Let's question the media's rush to judgment when the violence spills over into a shadow game where animals are brutally exploited in the service of violent entertainment. Let's ask why some of these fans can decry the treatment of dogs but barely acknowledge the pain of Earl Campbell. And let's all wonder whether just this once, the media will take a nice cold shower and reflect for just a moment on the role they play in this enduring hypocrisy.
Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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