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By Jill Howard-Church on Animals and Society Institute (ASI)
Michael Vick's return to professional football has drawn criticism from some and standing ovations from others. Sports writers and everyday fans have weighed in on whether or not he should have been reinstated to the NFL after being convicted of supporting and participating in dogfighting activities for six years. Words like "mistake," "second chance" and "forgiveness" are often used, and issues of race, money and ethical relativity only muddy, not level, the playing field of justice.
As both a lifelong animal advocate and a fervent football fan who happens to live in Atlanta, where Vick was playing when all this came to light, I have at least some insight into the issues involved. I attended demonstrations outside the Georgia Dome, where I was sorry to see that both the rhetoric and the picket lines were starkly divided into black and white. I am ambivalent about Vick's current role both on and off the field, but I prefer dialog to diatribes from either side.
First, I think the word "mistake" is a gross oversimplification of what Vick did. He didn't just attend a dogfight once or bet on them a few times, he spent large amounts of money supporting an interstate dogfighting operation he kept hidden in the woods behind his house in Virginia. When the battered dogs were discovered, he tried to divert blame to friends and relatives. He lied to his coach and team owner, denying any involvement in what he knew was a crime. When the evidence removed any doubt that he was indeed deeply involved, and when it was learned that he personally helped kill at least several dogs, he was busted. That wasn't just a "mistake," that was a violent, deceptive and unlawful pattern of behavior that rightfully questions his entire moral character.
Second, there's the issue of "second chances." That's both a legal and philosophical concept that's harder to decide. The dogs who died in fights they had no chance of escaping did not get second chances; their fate is tragic and permanent. Many argue that on sheer principle, Vick doesn't deserve any more mercy than he showed them. Some of the dogs rescued from his kennels did get a second chance at Best Friends Animal Society, but they were victims of abuse, not perpetrators of it. Michael Vick did (unlike some other sports stars who have shot people or beaten their girlfriends) serve prison time and (like other felons) complete the penalties assigned to him by law. Although he attended Virginia Tech for two years, he never earned a degree and presumably doesn't know how to do anything professionally besides play football, which he does very well. He is a marketable commodity, and so his appeal to return to the NFL is both practical and logical for himself and for any team that might benefit from his skills. Only this time, he wants to win back not only football games but his reputation as well by working with the Humane Society of the United States in anti-dogfighting programs.
Vick wouldn't be the first animal abuser to seek redemption by speaking out against the very acts he committed. The animal rights movement has several notable converts who have been embraced into the mainstream. Don Barnes is a former vivisector who became an activist against animal research. Steve Hindi is a former hunter who now goes to great lengths to stop hunting, rodeos and other "sporting" cruelties. What Barnes and Hindi did to animals wasn't illegal, but most advocates (unlike the general public) would argue that killing monkeys in labs, deer in the woods and dogs in a ring are all equally condemnable. So why shouldn't Michael Vick be given a chance to do his own about-face? His sincerity, or lack thereof, should be discernable in fairly short order. The main difference is that Barnes and Hindi made activism their nonprofit livelihoods; Vick is back making millions playing football and doing some PSAs on the side. It's legitimate to ask who's ultimately helping whom.
As for forgiveness, the only ones in a position to forgive him are the dogs he abused and killed, and that judgment won't happen in his earthly lifetime. His human peers are only observers with their own value judgments and vested interests.
I'm not sure what I'd say to Michael Vick's face if I had the chance. As much as I hate what he did, I allow for the possibility that he sees the world (or at least animals) differently now. He grew up thinking, as too many Americans of all walks of life do, that there's a different set of rules for how you treat animals vs. people. But he hurt a species most people cherish, and for that he has paid a personal and professional price, albeit nothing compared to what his dogs suffered. I wish he would complete the ASI's AniCare treatment program for animal abusers so we might know more of what's in his heart and mind. If - and only if - he advances animal protection as well or better than he advances a football, there might be something of value in this sad saga.
Jill Howard-Church is a writer and editor who specializes in animal issues. She serves as the part-time communications director for the Animals and Society Institute, and is the volunteer president of the Vegetarian Society of Georgia.
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