Editorial: Has Michael Vick truly hit the road to redemption?

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2009:

Former Atlanta Falcons quarterback and
convicted dogfighter Michael Vick on May 20,
2009 completed 19 months at the Leavenworth
Federal Penitentiary.
Released through a side gate, Vick is
not in Kansas any more. Eluding the media
spotlight, Vick followed the Yellow Brick
Road–or some other seemingly improbable
path–into an alliance with the Humane Society of
the United States that has stretched the
imaginations of many animal defenders and much of
the public almost as much as the alliance of
Dorothy, her mixed breed dog Toto, the Cowardly
Lion, the Tin Woodman, and the Scarecrow, who
exposed the Wizard of Oz in 1900.

Dingdong! The Wicked Witch is not dead,
but will be volunteering for the representatives
of dogs and cats, wildlife, habitat
conservation, and nonlethal crop protection.
Vick, who since his April 2007 arrest has
personified dogfighting, is to become an
itinerant spokesperson against dogfighting,
building on his lingering “street cred” as the
first prominent quarterback of African ancestry
in the National Football League.
“There was nobody tougher on Michael Vick
than HSUS,” explained HSUS president Wayne
Pacelle. “We urged state and federal
authorities to prosecute him and we made a key
confidential informant available to federal
authorities, who proved vital to the case. We
also campaigned, along with others, to urge the
Atlanta Falcons to drop Vick, the National
Football League to suspend him, and his
corporate sponsors to sever their ties.”
Vick asked for the chance to speak
against dogfighting under the HSUS banner. HSUS
conditionally accepted. Vick will be required to
make public appearances, not just appear in a
video, and will have to do it “for a long time,”
Pacelle said, before HSUS will feel convinced
that he has sincerely repented and reformed.
Earlier, Vick was to have produced an
anti-dogfighting public service announcement to
be distributed by People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals. In January 2009, however,
PETA withdrew from the deal after Vick’s
attorneys asked PETA to support Vick’s
application for reinstatement of eligibility to
play in the NFL.
Instead, PETA urged that Vick undergo a
brain scan and psychiatric evaluation.
“I sat with the man, but I still don’t
know what’s in his heart,” acknowledged Pacelle.
“He told me he did terrible things to dogs. He
said he grew up with dogfighting, and never
sufficiently questioned it. He said that he has
changed forever. And he said he wants to show
the American public that he is committed to
helping to combat this problem. He asked for an
opportunity to help. I want to give him that
opportunity. If he makes the most of it,”
Pacelle assessed, “and demonstrates a sincere
long-term commitment to the task, then it may
prove to be a tipping point in our campaign to
eradicate dogfighting. If he demonstrates a
fleeting or superficial interest, then it will
be his own failing, not ours.
“For me,” Pacelle stipulated, “it’s not
about Michael Vick and providing endless punitive
treatment. It’s about stopping other young
people from going down the road Vick took. We’ve
done a lot with the law, and with law
enforcement, and that work continues. But the
most urgent challenge we face is interrupting the
cycle of violence that leads kids down this dead
end path. They need to see that dogfighters
never succeed. They are criminals, and there is
no good outcome. Michael Vick’s story is a
narrative they need to hear.”
Responded International Society for
Animal Rights president Susan Dapsis, in an open
letter to Pacelle, “You make a persuasive
argument that Vick could, and I repeat could,
be a force for good regarding the obscene
practice of dog fighting. ISAR’s fear, however,
and that of many of our colleagues in the animal
protection movement, is that the allegedly
repentant Michael Vick is actually the sociopath
Michael Vick who is using HSUS to further his own
professional and financial goals. We don’t
believe that given Vick’s criminal conduct, the
dog abuser has suddenly become the dog lover.
Accordingly,” Dapsis pledged “ISAR will watch
HSUS while you watch Vick.”
Taking a rather different approach to
Vick, Dapsis pledged that, “Each time ISAR
learns that Vick has benefitted, or is about to
benefit from his criminal celebrity, we’ll send
our ‘Don’t Let Michael Vick Benefit By Abusing
Dogs’ petition to everyone who is trying to help
him.” Dapsis called the petition “a grass roots
effort to further punish Vick for his abominable
conduct. We vow to keep after him,” she
pledged, “even after he has faded from public
view–the sooner the better.”
Michael Vick is clearly hoping that the
endorsement of a major national humane
organization will help persuade NFL commissioner
Roger Goodell to reinstate him, and start him
back toward football stardom and the lucrative
equipment and apparel endorsement contracts that
he lost in consequence of participating in
But as New York Times sportswriter Lynn
Zinzer pointed out, “His N.F.L. future also
depends on finding another team that will sign
him.” Vick spent his entire previous career with
the Atlanta Falcons. Falcons owner Arthur Blank
“has said Vick will never again play for the
Falcons,” Zinzer continued, “who have said they
will try to trade Vick’s rights or release him.
They previously agreed to a contract settlement
that frees both sides from the lucrative 10-year
deal Vick signed in 2004.
“Any prospective new team would most
likely endure the wrath of fans and others still
outraged over his involvement in dogfighting and
its accompanying brutality,” Zinzer assessed.
“A new team would also be banking on Vick
returning as the electrifying player he was over
his six seasons in the NFL” before his arrest.
“Vick has reportedly stayed in shape while in
prison,” Zinzer noted, “but with two missed
seasons, there is no way to know if his skills
have diminished. Vick said in bankruptcy court
last month that he believed he could play another
10 to 12 years. The NFL career average is only
3.2 years, and Vick has [already] played six.”
“The story of the coming NFL season will
be which team has the courage to give Vick the
second chance he has earned by virtue of his
incarceration,” wrote New York Times sports
columnist William C. Rhoden. Rhoden is known for
open sympathy toward animal causes, including
critical coverage of horse racing and commentary
about coaches who respond inadequately when
athletes mistreat animals. He devoted two
columns to pondering how the NFL, society, and
animal advocates might best respond to Vick’s
quest for redemption and an athletic comeback.
“Vick may still be better than half the
quarterbacks on NFL rosters,” Rhoden guessed.
“If public relations were not an issue, several
teams would take a chance on the 28-year-old
However, Rhoden continued, “While
debates on sports talk radio programs continue to
focus on the narrow issue of whether Vick
deserves a second chance to play football, the
larger, wiser issue is Vick’s personal
rehabilitation and the role he can play in
discouraging animal abuse.” Rhoden noted that
PETA had backed away from Vick, but suggested
that “There is no benefit to the organization to
making peace with Vick. Better to call attention
to itself by waging a public crusade against any
team that considers signing him.”
Rhoden himself felt more inclined to stick his neck out.
“Whether you feel his sentence was too
harsh or that it was justified,” Rhden wrote,
“Vick has served the sentence that was imposed.
This is a time for soul-searching, and not only
from Vick. Before they pick up placards and
protest, animal lovers and animal-rights
activists should look into their hearts and
realize that Vick has paid a heavy price for his
role in the cruelty. Vick has lost almost
everything. He has been disgraced before the
public, his family, and his friends. He is
“The HSUS announcement about its
partnership with Vick, and the reaction to it,”
Rhoden finished, “underline complexities that
lie between raw outrage over the mistreatment of
animals and the rehabilitation of the humans who
commit the crimes. Is there justification for
being skeptical of Vick’s motives? Of course.
Vick is eager–desperate–to remake his
image҆[But] Regardless of how you feel about
Vick, the morality of the issue he
represents–cruelty to animals–is not cut and
dried, black and white. HSUS has introduced a
large patch of gray.”

Humane work is about redemption

The enduring appeal of The Wizard of Oz
is that it is not a simple black-and-white
good-against-evil morality tale. The highly
manipulative and ethically ambiguous wizard
himself proves to be a rather ordinary man who is
striving to live up to extraordinary
expectations, not unlike a star athlete, who
while still much too young to be viewed as a wise
elder in almost any society, is widely expected
to exemplify the highest ideals of social conduct.
Most fall short. As Rhoden has often
pointed out, the overwhelming majority of star
athletes are simply ordinary young men with
extraordinary talents, whose values are shaped
chiefly by peer conduct–like the behavior of
soldiers and sailors, students, and many animal
rights activists. Star athletes have not been
taught to be moral philosophers, or exemplars;
they have been taught to play games well enough
that other people will pay to watch them.
Yet there is one moral lesson that every
successful athlete learns almost as soon as he or
she takes up a sport: how to rebound from a
failure and rise to the next challenge.
To a considerable extent, the degree to
which an athlete becomes a star reflects the
extent of his or her ability to learn quickly
from an error, and never make the same mistake
twice. Other people may refuse to learn from
mistakes, and may endlessly repeat the same
patterns of behavior througout life, but a
successful athlete–at least on the playing
field– must be willing and able to adapt, often
in the space of a split second.
Michael Vick as a quarterback was best
known for thinking on his feet, scrambling
instead of passing, or passing instead of
scrambling, or doing both as part of one play,
while outsized defensive linemen tried to knock
him farther than the tornado threw Dorothy. Vick
may be able to go another direction now. He is
certainly trying to show that he can.
His conduct as a sadistic dogfighter,
according to the co-defendants whose testimony
sent him to prison, suggests that he may well be
a psychopath, who will play for the fullest
possible advantage his association with whatever
humane society accepts his help. But, make no
mistake about it, the Humane Society of the U.S.
is unlikely to be the only bidder. Almost
certainly several others would accept Vick as a
spokesperson, if only for the short-term
publicity value of having him, and most have
much less ability to keep his conduct under close
surveillance throughout whatever association he
might have with them.
HSUS is gambling on Vick’s sincerity,
but so are thousands of local humane societies
that gamble every day on the sincere commitment
of volunteers and employees who previously
hunted, trapped, fished, worked in animal
slaughtering and factory farming,
and–occasionally–were at some point convicted
of cruelty or neglect.
Michael Vick is not the first convicted
dogfighter to represent a humane society. Some
of the most effective opponents of
dogfighting–and cockfighting–have participated
in animal fighting in their youth, yet have
convincingly turned against it later.
These people have been exceptions.
Convicted animal fighters have extremely high
rates of recidivism. To some extent sadism
appears to be addictive. Beyond that,
dogfighting and cockfighting are the focal
activities of entire subcultures, and
participants typically have family and many
friends who also participate.
It is possible that Vick feels that the
humane society most involved in taking him down
may be the one best able to help him stay away
from any further association with dogfighting and
dogfighters. Much as recovering addicts often
realize that they need the supervision, new
activities, and new social life provided by
twelve-step programs, Vick may understand that
redeeming his public image, as well as
recovering his personal fortunes, will require
an ongoing, lifelong commitment, and that HSUS
may be the national organization best able to
help him make a complete break from his past.
Only time will tell whether Vick makes
good. Meanwhile, the focal goal of humane work
is redemption: changing the direction of not
only erring individuals but the whole of society
in how humans treat animals. Achieving
redemption requires allowing those who have erred
the opportunity to change directions, providing
whatever help is appropriate.
Dorothy and Toto would have given Vick a chance.

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