What if Michael Vick Was Clumsy?

“All these guys who were saying that we've got it made through athletics, it's just not so. You as an individual can make it, but I think we've got to concern ourselves with the masses of the people – not by what happens as an individual, so I merely tell these youngsters when I go out: certainly I've had opportunities that they haven't had, but because I've had these opportunities doesn't mean that I've forgotten.” – Jackie Robinson

When did Michael Vick become a Horatio Alger story? The player who was vilified after spending nearly two years in federal prison for being part of a dog-fighting ring, is now our latest feel-good comeback story: a symbol of this country's remarkable capacity for empathy and forgiveness. Vick signed a head-spinning six-year, 100 million dollar contract with the Philadelphia Eagles on Tuesday and the narrative has centered on the way he’s been embraced by franchise and fans after falling so low. Mentioned often in an offhand manner, is that three years ago Vick was making 11 cents an hour as a janitor in Leavenworth.
No doubt the Vick journey is perhaps unrivaled in the history of sports. But take a moment to consider that 11 cents an hour wage along with Jackie Robinson's warning not to use the athletic achievement of one to blind us from larger realities. Michael Vick’s janitorial job was just a sub atomic particle of
a prison labor industrial complex intimately interwoven with the highest levels of corporate America. 


The foundation of our bounty of incarcerated labor is the fact that we have more people behind bars than any country on earth. David Fathi, the director of the ACLU’s National Prisoner Project commented, “The United States is the world’s leading prison nation, with 2.3 million prisoners and an incarceration rate six times higher than Canada’s and twelve times higher than Japan’s.….Prisoners can be made to work, they don’t have to be paid, and they lack the protections that free workers have, like workers compensation and the right to join a union.  So there’s a real potential for exploitation and abuse.”
Among African American men, like Vick, the numbers incarcerated stagger the senses. As Michelle Alexander, best selling author of
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness said in an August speech, “More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began,” David Fathi also pointed out to me, “Most Americans know that the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude.  What many don’t know is that it contains an exception for prisoners.” A mind-boggling number of private companies outsource to US prisons. From K-Mart and JC Penny to McDonalds and Wendy’s, you can see the products of jailhouse labor. When you call American Airlines or Avis, the person helping you with your travel might be chained to their desk.
As Liliana Segura, a board member at the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and fellow-journalist at
the Nation said to me, “Just last year we saw thousands of prisoners go on strike across the state of Georgia, in large part to protest the total lack of compensation for the hours they spend working. In Louisiana, prisoners at Angola harvest crops by hand, earning pennies per hour. There's a reason people call it modern day slavery. After the BP oil spill, Louisiana prisoners were used to clean up the beaches, a fact that not only angered local workers whose industries were being devastated, but also those who argued that such labor is not subject to adequate oversight given the risks involved. Prisoners represent nothing less than a massive--and expanding--invisible workforce in this country.”
 Yes, Michael Vick has gone from 11 cents an hour to a 100 million dollar man, but for the mass of prisoners who can't run 40 yards in 4.4 seconds or throw a ball 60 yards with a flick of the wrist, the future is bleak. That's why in times like this, we should remember Jackie Robinson's words. If we, as Jackie advised,  "concern ourselves with the masses of the people", then we'd properly view Michael Vick's ascension as cause for reflection, not celebration. He made it out of the prison system intact. His story is exceptional because millions of people won’t be able to say the same. That’s what happens when caught in a system that measures your worth at 11 cents an hour. 


[Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.]

18 Reader Comments | Add a comment

zarin, zarin...

cant you just be happy for his success and redemption?

do you really need to make EVERYTHING all about you? and your pet causes?

give it a rest zarin...

also, zarin...

it has to be said all of your articles make you sound like a kid that first saw a black person in college.

you actually have a rather paternalistic view towards blacks and others, as though they all have an obligation to think as you do and only as you do. and that they all have to believe in and support each and every one of your pet causes.

Vick, etal.

Thanks, Dave, for establishing once again the interconnectedness of it all - sport is not a separate
feelgood world unto itself. NEVER give it a rest! For every VICk who is carted out as proof that the system works, there are millions-millions for whom it never has and never will work. These things need to be said over and over. Some people just want to put their heads in the sand - PRINT THE TRUTH AND RAISE HELL!

What would be the resolution

for this situation? Minimum wage? Based on a 3 year sentence, theoretically an inmate would walk out of prison with $45000+ based on a 40 hour work week (minus incidentals). How many law abiding minimum wage earners would be able to say the same. At even $1 per hour, it would be $6000. Who, outside of prison, has the opportunity to save $6000 over 3 years by doing the same work?

Now I understand, as with your reference, that there have been situations where prisoners have been used for higher paid contract work. But I think its safe to assume that an overriding majority of work is manual labor that pays at or slightly above minimum wage.

well said gator....

and zarin perhaps the inmates you are having a pity party over could, you know, try not getting arrested in the first place?

Gator & Dexx

Gator & Dexx are obviously black folk who should know what they're talking about, but I don't think they are inmates.

Amazes Me

It still amazes me that people visit this site, just to tell the writer to quit writing stories like this. Why visit the site if you don't like the tone of the articles. I can see disagreement with some details or perspectives, but maybe these people should stick to Fox News or other areas that might be more tailored to their needs.

Keep writing DZ, keep the education flowing!

Wages on TOP of room and board

Taxpayers already pay to house and feed the inmates. I think it's unfair to say that the "system" only values their worth at 11 cents an hour when prisoners are in prison as a punishment for crimes committed. Any compensation for doing "chores" while in prison is a bonus in my eyes.

Modern Day Slavery

Tang, pull your head out of your rear end and look around. When half of the people in prison are there because of drug charges, don't act like they are a bunch of violent offenders. Most of them are there for getting high.

They are imprisoned for a minor offense, while money flows to private prison operators, police units wielding army-level weaponry, and companies that profit off of cheap labor.

Oh, and as far as room and board go, how much would you pay per year to be locked in a cell with another man every day, pissing in the corner of the room and getting let out in the yard once a day for exercise, like an animal?

dennis, rick, and brian...

pardon my french, but you are full of it.

as I said, maybe these guys could, you know, try not to do stuff that gets them arrested and put in prison?

stop the little violin for the criminals and the pity party

Get your facts straight, then distort them as you please!

Excellent article Dave!

It should be pointed out that while incarceration rates are the highest in the United States, other counties have seen their rates go up dramatically as well. Back in 2003, the British press reported that prisoners at Wealstun took to the roof after changes to the exercise routine and the arrival of inmates from Liverpool and Manchester and that overcrowding lay behind the disturbances. Even the conservative Prison Officers Association blamed the record numbers crammed into Britain's jails.

In Toronto, two inmates were beaten to death in the last year while in the horribly overcrowded Don Valley Jail. Studies have also shown that assaults, protests and suicides are rising sharply in Canadian prisons.

And all this is happening while most statistics show that violent crime has been on a steady decline since the 1970s! If you profiled the prison population at the moment, around half would be abusers of drugs or alcohol and about a third would have mental health problems of one kind or another. Around one in three will have been in the care of foster parents, and at least half will have had serious problems at school and therefore literacy problems. The profile is not one of sophisticated and violent robbers. The vast majority are people who come from very poor backgrounds.

Prison is not the place for these people. But to break the cycle you need proper retraining and skilling, investment in the public sector and infrastructure, and the removal of obstacles to getting people in to meaningful work.

Prison labor takes jobs

Regardless of how you think prisoners should spend their time, why should large private companies benefit from the cheap labor? Small businesses, who have to pay minimum wage, can't compete with that. Every prison laborer takes a job from an unemployed worker, who needs a living wage in order to get by without resorting to crime.

Prison, Sports, and Race.

1965. yeah I did it. 16 years old. Elmira,NY
reformatory. 18hr lock in. Now the pay then was 5 cents a day. damn no raise increase.
these jails are made for punishment only. Blacks arent the only criminals. fast forwward to 1990. Counselor in a substance abuse program. Black youth stay in, 17arrests white boys go home. no bail. their own reconnesence. but thanks Dave.keep the pressure on.

Boys in the Hall

I put some time in working in the max unit at local Juvenile Hall. All young men of color, all abused and let down by the adults in their lives. Most are doomed to a life inside, or dead, and they know it.

new question...

i certainly hope no one here defends plaxico burress for his completely asinine men's health interview.

dear dexx...

Dear dexx,
With all due respect, why don't you go watch Fox or read Mein Kampf? Your intellect is clearly far superior to ours.

A Question

Does anyone have a source/more info on companies hiring/outsourcing to prison?

umm.. dexx is pretty crazy

Making things about you is what a blogger is supposed to do. and Zirin is a genious! he has shaped many of my sports opinions with his book! soooo his arguements aren't petty they are legitimate. anyway! Dave you're pretty much a hero of mine! xD

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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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