Vick Behind Bars

Chilling. That's the only way to describe Michael Vick's 23 month sentence for admitting he bankrolled the "Bad Newz Kennels" dogfighting operation and helped kill the dogs that couldn't perform. Prosecutors had recommended a 12-18 month sentence, but Federal Judge Henry E. Hudson, a dog lover with framed pictures of his pooch in his office, jacked the sentence up to 23 months, feeling - according to a statement - that Vick was not truly contrite. Maybe it was Vick's fame, maybe it was because Vick wasn't the "first to flip" on his codefendants, maybe Judge Hudson really loves dogs: but either way the sentence was without any gesture of pity or reconciliation: only contempt for Vick's stated desire to right his wrongs and achieve a measure of "redemption."

Vick's career has become one of the great implosions in the history of athletics. One would have to travel back to Shoeless Joe Jackson's lifetime ban from baseball after the 1919 World Series to see such a brilliant sports career self destruct in such spectacular  fashion. 

Vick was the first NFL quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, the first to beat Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers on the road in the playoffs at historic Lambeau field, the first "running" quarterback to be picked number 1 in the NFL draft.

I remember seeing him smile with pride when he and Donovan McNabb became the first African American quarterbacks to start against each other in a conference championship game. He spoke glowingly about "How far we have come." How far indeed.

Now that Michael Vick stands convicted, ready to spend two years of his life in a federal prison, you will forgive me if I don't order the "piss on Vick" or "neuter Vick" t-shirts, google keeps telling me to buy, everytime I send an email with the world "Vick" in the subject line.

You'll forgive me if I don't echo the words of ESPN's the Sports Gal who wrote, "So let's make an example out of our dog-hating friend Mr. Vick. Let's put him in televised cage fights with other dogfighters. Leading up to each fight, we'll starve Michael the same way he starved his dogs. Each fight will keep going until Michael or his opponent gives up or dies. The loser will be executed by electrocution, gunfire or hanging...If cage fighting is too harsh, then Vick should eat dog food and drink out of the toilet for the entire time he's in jail."

The truth is neither so simple nor snide, and pandering to the worst instincts of vengeance - even under cover of irony - don't make it so.

The truth is that Michael Vick did something indefensible. He broke the law and is going to prison. 

The truth is also that dog fighting takes place all over the country. I spoke to a group of young people in Oakland - all ethnic backgrounds but united in poverty - who were just shocked someone would go to jail for this. As they told me everyone they know "fights pits," and no one gives it a second thought. To them, Vick is a target, a scapegoat and that's where the story ends. A "teachable moment" may have been lost in the rush to punish: an opening to actually alter how young people view this most brutal of so-called sports.

The truth is that there is something perverse about animal rights fanatics baying for jail time outside the courthouse when there is so much good old fashioned human suffering that needs attention. I was in New Orleans shortly after Vick's plea, and a young woman asked me, "Do you think if people knew how many pets died in Katrina, more people would care what we are going through?"

The truth is often athletes stay attached to people from their youth that don't hold their best interests, because all the new people they meet in the Sports World - a rogues gallery of lawyers, agents, and assorted parasites - don't seem to hold their best interests either.

The truth is also that Michael Vick is not evil incarnate. He doesn't live for genocide. I spoke to his former poetry professor from Virginia Tech, devastated that he could meet such a fate, trying to square the facts admitted in court with the young man donating money to families who lost loved ones in the campus massacre last spring. "None of these people know Michael," she kept saying.

I have no idea whether there is a future for Michael Vick in the NFL, and today I really don't care. But I do know that Michael Vick will be in prison with no small help from a hysterical media, grandstanding politicians, and headline chasing prosecutors. Perhaps Michael Vick believes he needs to seek redemption, but there are others who could stand to join him.

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