Full Debate on Vick with Kathat Pollitt

Who's the Victim in the Case of Michael Vick?

Michael Vick has a 10-year contract with the Atlanta Falcons for $130 million. His skill at running, kicking and throwing a football has won him the admiration of millions -- until now. As you probably know, Vick has been charged with involvement in the cruel and illegal "sport" of dog fighting. Americans may not care if an athlete beats his wife, but we love our pets. Breeding and training dogs to fight and kill, disposing of the losers by hanging, electrocution, slamming them repeatedly onto the floor -- this is definitely taking machismo too far.

In his recent piece for The Nation's website, Dave Zirin makes some valid points. Yes, Vick deserves some semblance of the presumption of innocence in the media. (Vick claims others ran the dog fight business from his Virginia house without his knowledge when he wasn't present.) And yes, there's racism in some of the virulent attacks on him on sports and news websites. References to lynching, the n-word and OJ do suggest something besides love of animals.

But I was appalled by Zirin's attempt to shift focus away from Vick to "the self-righteousness of the media" and the hypocrisy of "American culture" which "celebrates violent sports -- especially football -- and is insensitive to the consequences that the weekly scrum has on the bodies and minds of its players" like Earl Campbell and Andre Waters and other middle-aged ex-footballers who suffered long-term damage from old injuries. Like the accusations of racism, this sounds like a rather desperate bid to change the subject. Why should one concern displace the other? Can't one both feel revulsion at animal torture and want the game to be safer? At least the the players were volunteers, richly rewarded for the risks they took. Nobody asked the dogs if they wanted to have their throats ripped out.

There's probably a sense in which Michael Vick is a victim. But it's the same sense in which everyone , from Alberto Gonzales to Paris Hilton, is shaped by social forces outside their control. If you take that view, though, everyone should get amnesty: the racist cop, the Enron executive, the porn-loving tormenters of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and all the other people we love to attack at The Nation. Why do I think we are not going to recommend our readers lighten up on, say, Scooter Libby, on the grounds that working for Dick Cheney would warp anyone's moral fibre? We only deploy the blame-society argument on behalf of people we already sympathize with.

As human beings go, Michael Vick had more freedom of action than most. Nobody claims he electrocuted dogs to put food on the table. If -- note I said if -- he's found guilty, he should get the same sentence other people get who are convicted of the same crimes. Increased sensitivity to animal welfare may have its annoying pieties and hypocrisies but it marks a true contemporary moral advance and it's not as if we humans have so many of those to show for ourselves. It's good that dog fighting is banned. And if football is really as morally destructive as Zirin claims -- if it really turns ordinary men into sadists through a culture of "trickle-down violence" -- then maybe we should ban it too.

Katha Pollitt: The Minnow Hunter

First and foremost I want to thank Katha Pollitt and all of the Nation web-heads for responding to my piece Who Let the Dogs Out on Michael Vick? I'm particularly grateful that Ms. Pollitt, who likes sports about as much as George W. Bush enjoys Russian novels, chose to enter the fray. But my gratitude is tempered by being rather puzzled with her and all who believe that I am somehow "excusing" dog fighting in my column. I do nothing of the sort. I actually wrote, "Fighting dogs is an ugly, brutal business, and none of [what I write] is to excuse anything that may or may not have happened." Seems pretty clear.

But that didn't stop Ms. Pollitt who remained "appalled", by what she believed to be my "attempt to shift focus away from Vick to the self-righteousness of the media." I understand that Katha Pollitt doesn't read a lot of what passes for sports journalism or spends her spare time listening to sports radio: this probably speaks well for her. But if she did even a cursory swim in these unfamiliar waters before writing her piece, she might have found my words less appalling.

To hear the panting sentinels of sports radio wax sanctimonious about the charges against Mr. Vick, and then in the next sentence call to "hang him high" or "lock him in a cage with a pit bull" is disgusting: especially in advance of a conviction. To hear these same people inveigh against the violence of dog fighting while celebrating violence in sport

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 dave@edgeofsports.com.
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Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com