Where are you on Michael Vick?
Are you still angry about his direct involvement in years of dogfighting? Feel like he’s paid his dues to society and become a changed man? Are you, like many of Vick’s friends — still to this day in some cases — are, cool with dogfighting? Something you also grew up surrounded by?
While we’re at it, let’s back up.
Did you feel the sentence fit the crime? Remember, Vick got 23 months from the feds. Even PETA people felt that was harsh and surprising.
Did you think Vick was made an example of because of his celebrity? Or perhaps it was because he was black?
These were the lines redrawn in Part Two of “Vick,” ESPN’s 30 For 30 look at one of the more complex and curious public figures in recent sports history. His story is unique in the sporting landscape, one we likely will never see the likes of again.
But there’s plenty to be learned from his story. Even now.
It’s easy to forget just how heated the Vick debate was in the mid-to-late 2000s. Lines were drawn. Vick was despised by many. Others wondered what the big deal was.
You could probably say the same thing now. Just last week, when I wrote up Part One of “Vick” I had a reader contact me directly and told me that by writing about Vick I was “disgusting” for “putting light on Michael Vick.”
That guy hasn’t forgiven Vick. But some have, or they’ve channeled their anger elsewhere. After all, Vick is retired from football and not in the spotlight these days, outside of his work as a second-tier Fox analyst.
But there are many who have seen Vick as a changed man, and even some of the most ardent dog lovers have come around on him, citing his contrition and work with animal cruelty groups.
Even if you’re not there on Vick, you have to give the guy credit: For someone who admittedly was once as lazy — coasting at times on his rare talent as an Atlanta Falcons quarterback — as he was defiant about his responsibilities off the field, Vick absolutely appears to have learned something in his 548 days in prison.
Vick could have taken a sweeter deal with Chapter 7 bankruptcy but passed, vowing to repay his debtors. He did that. Vick vowed to do work with an anti-cruelty campaign, and the way that PETA spoke during “Vick” it felt like they didn’t expect much from him. He changed their minds, at least the ones ESPN interviewed. Vick came back to the NFL looking, as then-Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid said, “pudgy” and “overweight.” Vick busted his tail and got back into good shape. Great shape. Michael Vick shape.
So even for those who will never forgive his canine-related sins, they reluctantly would have to invest in the idea that either rehabilitation worked or Vick was scared pretty damned straight.
Yet there’s this stronghold of Vick supporters out there, and they’ve got to be the most loyal people you’ve ever seen. After all, their hero didn’t work as hard as he needed to. He was given special treatment by coaches (we’re looking at you, Jim Mora) and still broke rules.
Vick repeatedly thumbed his nose at authority — cops, coaches, team owners, anyone preaching their need for his responsibility. He even flipped off the fans, although Vick has maintained it wasn’t Falcons fans he was aiming that at, but rather one ornery Saints fan in Atlanta. Still, the locals felt hurt by Vick on some level at a time where it appeared his interest in living up to expectations had diminished.
And yes, there’s the big one: Vick oversaw a massive dogfighting operation that involved the commissioning of dogs to be bred for the sole reason of being good fighters. The ones that weren’t slaughtered by the dogs were then done so by Vick’s friends and sycophants.
“If a dog loses a fight,” Vick’s former best friend, Quanis Phillips, explains, “he goes down.”
Vick allowed the whole thing to happen under his watch — at his residence, on his property with most of his money and blessing.
Re-listening to the details of the operation is not for the weak of stomach. As someone who just had to put his own dog down last week — a few hours prior to the first episode — this part didn’t sit too well.
Bad Newz Kennel included a makeshift infirmary for injured dogs, with syringes and blood-soaked rugs strewn about; the grid-like cement enclosures where hundreds of dogs were bred (many only to be killed, by duel or by mercy, later); and the ring where Vick and his friends watched the battles go down.
It was their escape.
“I looked at it as this is my deal, this is what I do outside of football,” Vick said. “Of course, I wish it was golf. I would have took those golf clubs Dan Reeves gave me and put them to use.”
Reeves, the former coach who tried his best to connect to Vick and mentor him, spent a portion of the first episode sounding like a disappointed father. Maybe even the father Vick never really had. (Vick’s biological father, Michael Boddie, isn’t mentioned much throughout “Vick,” but what little he was spotlighted doesn’t shine too kind a light on him.)
But even Reeves couldn’t stay mad at Vick. Neither could Falcons owner Arthur Blank nor NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, both of whom Vick straight up lied to their faces about his involvement. Blank and Goodell and Tony Dungy, one of Vick’s spiritual sherpas during his reentry to society after jail, now hail him as a hero.
And maybe he’s worth that praise. But there’s always a “but” with Vick.
“With Michael, it’s always going to be a mixed legacy,” Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said. “You have to always look at the whole picture.”
The message of ‘Vick’
Some of ESPN’s treatment in “Vick” was gratuitous. Intentional or not, the story is slanted enough to draw reasonable criticism.
The story could have been told in less than four hours. The backstory of his youth was necessary but not worth large swaths of the first two hours.
Some of the explaining away of Vick’s sins for cultural reasons was unnecessary, as was the thinly veiled suggestion that only (or mostly) white people were the ones upset at Vick — then and now. The public apologies of Vick followed by those of Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, Paula Deen and Donald Sterling? Felt like an editor could have stepped in at that point.
But “Vick” was also an elongated way of lobbing out this question: Is Vick truly sorry for his actions now?
By the end, the reasonable mind is guided toward yes. The sentence felt heavy-handed, racially motivated or not. Example made or otherwise.
Vick took his lumps like a man. He cut off ties to old friends without noble intentions. He came back and faced his tormentors. Vick thrived again, even if the brevity of it reminded us of what he gave up. But can we say that we wouldn’t even have been treated to the resurgent Vick — and the more honorable Vick — had he not been indicted and convicted? That feels clear.
Prison was terrible for Vick. But it also made him a better man.
We’re left with the idea that Vick was something of an entitled people pleaser who never really was taught early on why the cold slaughtering of dogs for entertainment might be an issue with some folks. It’s hard not to see where things went wrong for him and that he got his parenting in the middle of his life, from Dungy, Blank and others.
Now Vick is trying to be that father figure to his kids and the kids he speaks to at awareness events. He seems like a man doing the right thing, even if the haunting dog images can’t ever leave your head.
Will “Vick” change your view of Vick? Maybe, but most likely not. Time likely was the best asset for Vick, who mostly did the right things after prison, played well again for a short spurt for the Eagles and who no longer draws animal-activist groups when he shows up for work most days.
But there always will be the emailers and the people who thought the NFL made a massive mistake honoring him as a team captain for the Pro Bowl. Neither this documentary nor the passage of time is likely to dull their trenchant anger.
Who is to say who is wrong or right on the matter? But it’s fair to say that Vick showed more commitment, reaction and humanity after his prison sentence than he did to almost anything he did in his pre-incarceration lifetime. And even if the people looking in at Vick haven’t pivoted on their view of him, Vick’s clear change in his own life at least suggests that something good has come out of this story.
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