There’s no need to run through the allegations, the indictments, the horrific findings at Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels. You’ve been shocked and revolted by how these four boyhood pals — Quanis Phillips, Purnell Peace, Tony Taylor, and Vick — could be so inhumane to man’s best friend. You’ve been puzzled by how the quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons could jeopardize a $130 million contract and multimillion-dollar endorsement deals so that he could gamble chump change on dogfights. Well, I’m puzzled, too, and disgusted, and angry ... and interested.
Sentencing of the guilty — for all four indictees have now admitted their guilt in sequential plea bargain agreements — will follow formal allocution to their crimes sometime in November. In the government-orchestrated game of musical chairs over the past month, Taylor was the first to take a seat on the prosecution side. When Phillips and Peace joined him, the music stopped and Vick was left without a chair in sight. Game over. But even though he accepted a deal that would forestall a RICO-based indictment for racketeering, with its potential for more severe sentencing, the bad newz for Vick promises to keep on coming. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is a court unto himself and is unlikely to be satisfied with a Federal deal by which Vick would serve no more than a year in the pen.
Remember when younger brother Marcus Vick was the troublemaker in the family? Ah, those were the halcyon days when stomping on a player’s leg or pointing a gun at a bunch of kids would only warrant being kicked off the football team.
Indeed, there are those in the press who are saying this week that the Vick family background was so deprived and their neighborhood so depraved that Michael and Marcus never stood a chance, any more than Mike Tyson did. Vick’s own attorneys are saying that he fell in with the wrong crowd, that he is “very remorseful,” that he “wants to get his life back on track.” Vick attorney James D. Williams Jr. said, frighteningly perhaps: “Michael is a father, he’s a son, he’s a human being — people oftentimes forget that.”
So Michael’s associates, those boys from the hood, turned his head. Maybe. But he had better not say that in court, when accepting full personal responsibility is all that the judge will be willing to hear. In a Fox television news program on August 21 attorney Ted Williams (unrelated to James D.) opined that “Vick got too close to his boys, and he has blown a $130 million contract because of his boys and that association. I do not think Vick is really a bad guy. It is his association with his boys.”
Jason Whitlock of the Kansas City Star echoed that sentiment: “It’s my belief that if Vick stayed involved with dogfighting, he did so primarily because it was a way to stay involved in an activity in which his ‘boys’ still participated. It was Vick’s way of keeping it real. He was fearful of being labeled a sellout, fearful of having his blackness questioned.”
Shaun Powell of Newsday, in an especially softheaded search for villains in society, blamed those “who gave power and money and influence to someone who has done nothing, other than sling a football, to deserve it ... who failed to teach him right from wrong, or the importance of making good choices, when they had the chance ... who unleashed, pardon the expression, Vick on those dogs.... Those are the real guilty people. If the feds are correct about Vick’s role, then those people also helped strangle and shoot and drown animals that in essence were poisoned by a man who was poisoned himself long ago.”
To be fair, all of the above pundits also genuflect in the approved manner about Vick’s needing to take personal responsibility. On the other end of the Michael Vick seesaw, however, are Jay Mariotti of the Chicago Sun-Times and Bill Dwyre of the Los Angeles Times. The former calls Vick “a disgrace to humankind” [a perhaps rosy estimation of our species] and advocates a lifetime ban from the NFL, while the latter writes “Throw away the key.”
I have no suggestion for how Michael Vick should be punished, in the courts or by the NFL Commissioner, but I know how this is likely to play out: three years in lockup, with the judge rejecting the more lenient sentencing recommendation of the plea bargain; and an even harsher judgment by the NFL’s Goodell, who as the new sheriff in town will suspend Vick indefinitely and not hear a plea for reinstatement. (See below for the kinds of mischief tolerated by his predecessor in the job.) This in turn will enable the Atlanta Falcons to void Vick’s contract with them and demand the return of some of his huge signing bonus.
To those who love animals (myself included), there is nothing to be said in defense of the electrocution, hanging, and bludgeoning to death of dogs whose fighting skills were found wanting. And yet look at the degree of athlete violence, especially against women, that has been tolerated by the sports leagues and their fans. The litany is too long for this space, but here is a sample, confined to the NFL:
Christian Peter played six years in the NFL after eight arrests (and four convctions) while starring at Nebraska. Twice accused of rape, he accepted an out-of court settlement for one and a conviction for sexual assault in the other.
His teammate at Nebraska, Lawrence Phillips was taken sixth overall in the 1996 NFL draft by St. Louis despite his having pleaded to a brutal domestic abuse case — he was accused of breaking into his ex’s room, dragging her by the hair down three flights of stairs, and ramming her head against a mailbox. Phillips would be arrested three times over the next 19 months. Later, the Miami Dolphins would release him after he was accused of punching a woman in a bar after she declined to dance with him.
In 1998 St. Louis Rams defensive end Leonard Little, driving drunk, ran a red light and killed Susan Gutweiler, a 47-year-old wife and mother. He got 90 nights in a work release program and 1,000 hours of community service. In 2004, he was arrested for DUI again, though he beat the charge. Last year, he signed a new contract with St. Louis.
Baltimore Ravens running back Jamal Lewis, following a plea-bargain confession of drug trafficking, was suspended by the NFL for two games.
Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis pleaded to obstruction of justice in a double-murder case in which he had originally been charged with taking a hand. With soothing financial balm he settled civil suits brought on behalf of the victims’ families. The NFL took no action against him.
Most egregiously, on November 16, 1999, near the home of Carolina Panthers receiver Rae Carruth in Charlotte, North Carolina, Cherica Adams, a woman Carruth had been dating and who was eight months pregnant with his child., was shot four times in a drive-by shooting. In the moments before her death, she called 911 and related how Carruth had stopped his car in front of hers as another vehicle drove alongside hers and its passenger shot her. Carruth then drove from the scene. Doctors saved her son but, born prematurely, the boy suffers from cerebral palsy. Following a manhunt, Carruth was captured and convicted of conspiracy to commit murder; he is scheduled for release in 2018.
Yes, it is quite an all-pro team that Vick now quarterbacks. Let’s dispense with palaver about the psychology of hip-hop culture, or the extended infantilization of our athletic champions, or the NFL’s cashing in on contained violence while clucking when it shows itself off the field. There are a hundred explanations for Vick’s conduct but no excuse. The point is that the protective umbrella of a group, any group, will enable individuals to park their sense of morality and act unconscionably.
Psychologists and ethicists have long grappled with the question of what makes good people do bad things, let alone people whose personal histories and peer group might identify them as bad people. It is not too much, when contemplating the the path to infamy of Michael Vick, to reflect on Abu Ghraib, or Nazi Germany, or the Ku Klux Klan. Philip G. Zimbardo, former president of the American Psychological Association, said in 2004: “That line between good and evil is permeable. Any of us can move across it.... I argue that we all have the capacity for love and evil — to be Mother Theresa, to be Hitler or Saddam Hussein. It’s the situation that brings that out.”
Stanley Milgram, in a classic experiment in 1961, showed that university study participants, when given an order by someone in authority, would deliver what they believed to be extreme levels of electrical shock to those who answered questions incorrectly. This study was completed four days before the Israeli government hanged Adolf Eichmann.
Even though Michael Vick appears to have been the crypt keeper of his house of horrors, he was responding to archaic mandates, too. It is frightening to think how this man, or any of us, was made.