Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Michael Vick and the Possible Unprecedented Fall of an American Athlete

Michael Vick has formally been indicted for his role in a dogfighting operation. Vick and three friends promoted, housed, trained, breed and fought dogs under the moniker "Bad Newz Kennels" for seven years, according to federal investigators.

If convicted Vick, Purnell Peace, Quanis Phillips and Tony Taylor face up to six years in prison.

I've read the 19-page indictment and it features some of the most unsettling descriptions you'll find anywhere on the internet. Some excerpts include:
In or about February 2002, PEACE executed the pit ball that did not perform well in the "testing" session by shooting it with a .22 caliber pistol.

In or about March of 2003, PEACE, after consulting with VICK about the losing female pit bull's condition, executed the losing dog by wetting the dog down with water and electrocuting the animal.

In or about April 2007, PEACE, PHILLIPS, and VICK executed approximately 8 dogs that did not perform well in "testing" sessions at 1915 Moonlight Road by various methods, including hanging, drowning, and slamming at least one dog's body to the ground.
This is without question the biggest sports story of the year. Furthermore, three key factors are in place to make this one of the if not the biggest trial of a sports figure, both criminal and public.

First of all, the man himself. Here we have a well-known, highly-marketable, immensely polarizing black superstar. Vick, from his college days at Virginia Tech, has dazzled football fans with his amazing speed and footwork while frustrating them with lackluster effort and pedestrian passing stats. A $130 million contract and unrelenting hype has yielded frustration rather than fruition. The mounting pressure and criticism culminated with Vick flipping off his home crowd after a loss last season. Regardless of Michael's uneven success on the gridiron, his stellar playmaking ability made him one of the most popular athletes in the country; Vick's #7 Atlanta Falcons jersey is always among the bestsellers.

Off the field Vick was highly visible through endorsements and commercials. But like his football persona, with the good came the bad. In 2005 he was sued by a woman who alleged Vick knowingly gave her genital herpes while he was under the alias Ron Mexico. That case was settled out of court. Earlier this year Vick was detained at an airport for carrying a water bottle with a hidden compartment -- supposedly carrying marijuana. That incident never led to charges, but public perception continued to scrutinize a player who already had plenty of people talking about him. It's also worth noting that Michael's younger brother, Marcus, was also a talented QB at Virginia Tech who got into trouble for providing alcohol to minors, possession of marijuana, flipping off a crowd (must be genetic), stomping an opposing player's leg and brandishing a firearm. If anything, he kept the Vick name in the papers.

And the final point about Michael is that he's African-American. In the indictment Vick goes by the nickname "Ookie," which doesn't help matters in that regard. Although this case doesn't seem to have any racial connection, the public will accuse Mike of being another spoiled, aloof gangsta ("Bad Newz Kennels" anyone?). In fact, the internet has already begun the assault.

The second factor that drives this story is the circumstances leading up to the indictment.

Vick is a superstar who happens to play what is by far America's most popular game: professional football. The NFL, coincidentally, has been in the spotlight for recently punishing players Adam Jones, Tank Johnson and Chris Henry for various criminal transgressions. As the league continues to crackdown on bad behavior Michael now becomes the poster boy for NFL athletes gone awry. Over the past few years the media has increasingly focused on the criminal behavior of professional athletes. Stephen Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest were publicly condemned for their antics, even after a not guilty verdict. With Vick, as with Kobe, we have a popular star in the prime of his career accused of a heinous crime. Although Michael's fame doesn't stack up to Kobe's, Vick's trial has the possibility of overshadowing Bryant's well-publicized case.

What will be on trial, in the court of public opinion, is the type of arrogant, "bling bling" hip-hop lifestyle that has been increasingly scrutinized in the past couple years. Irresponsible sexual activity, obsession with guns, dabbling in illegal drugs, flaunting wealth with disregard: this lifestyle has come to stereotype the black professional athlete in America. Fittingly, Michael Vick has already demonstrated all of the above. The public naturally assumes that sort of twisted, unchecked bravado is what compels a person to do what Vick and his associates have allegedly done. For six years Michael allegedly killed dozens of dogs for what essentially amounts to thousands of dollars, a few good laughs and one demented ego. Expect news outlets such as ESPN to keep Michael's transgressions in the public eye for a long time.

The final reason why this story may develop into something much larger is the crime itself.

Dogfighting has remained in the shadows for a long time. Now that information about this illegal underground sport is gaining ground, Michael Vick instantly becomes attached as the face of dogfighting. What Vick has allegedly done touched a raw nerve in Americans. This is a country that fervently loves its pets, perhaps too much. While people were outraged by the murder charges against O.J. Simpson, Rae Carruth, Jayson Williams and Ray Lewis, those acts were never personalized to outsiders. However, people take cruelty against animals (especially domesticated ones) personally. It's strange how that works in our society: the killing of a fellow human being fails to elicit the same emotional response as the mistreatment of animals. But it's the truth.

PETA has already issued a condemnation. Expect the NFL and Vick's sponsors to take action as well, perhaps even before the criminal trial.

Now Vick finds himself possibly out of a job and definitely as the face of the irresponsible black athlete, the criminal NFL player and the world of dogfighting. Because of the sordid combination of persona, reputation, race, wealth and the criminal charges themselves, expect the fallout from this story to take years to sort out and fully understand. If we'll ever.

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