Ethical Nights: The Ballad of Michael Vick

So, as (hopefully) most of you know, my brother posted a piece yesterday about Michael Vick and Ben Roethlisberger, two of the most talked-about figures in the NFL when it comes to off-field shenanigans.

If you don’t know their respective stories by now, it’s best that you shut this browser window, turn off your computer, and go play in traffic.

That said, an interesting Facebook comment war commenced after the post, which brought up several important questions, such as the sanctity of animal life, the endeavor to atone for sins, and the all-important motivations of the “bar slut,” whatever that is.

These questions, while valid, are not going to be the center of this piece; they’ll be side dishes to the entrée of the deeper issue: sports ethics and how they apply to fans and non-fans alike.

According to this report by Necati Guler, an ex-member of the Turkish national basketball team and a groundbreaker in establishing basketball as a sport in Turkey, the value (pun intended) of ethics in sports ranges from contracts and economic fairness to journalists, fans, and referees.

As far as the issue with Vick and Roethlisberger goes, the issue at hand centers around off-field misconduct, and how the player should be treated. First, though, we need to identify the different groups of sports fans who evaluate professional athletes: casual fans, non-fans, and the hardcore.

It’s fans like these that make us shirt-wearers feel like pussies.

Bill Simmons, ESPN columnist and founder of Grantland (a blog which I aspire to, obviously), posted an article a few years ago detailing the rules to being a sports fan, including everything from proper attire, team loyalties, and the etiquette when your team wins a championship. (It includes not being able to bitch about anything for five years afterword. By the way.)

I wholeheartedly ascribe to these rules as best I can, and hope to inspire them in others as well. As for our descriptions of fans, let’s look at them through the lens of the Vick/Roethlisberger scenario:

Casual fan: “Well, I don’t really know too much about it, but he’s playing well, and my team’s doing better with him than without him, and he’s (making amends/hasn’t been convicted of anything) so I say let ‘em play.”

Non-sports fan: “I absolutely believe he should be (put in a cage and beaten/prison raped) OR have no opinion about it whatsoever, people are making too big of a deal about it because they’re professional athletes in the public eye.”

Hardcore fan: “HOW DARE YOU IMPUGN THE DIGNITY OF MY QUARTERBACK! HE IS (THE MOST DYNAMIC AND EXCITING PLAYER IN THE HISTORY OF THE NFL/A CHAMPIONSHIP CALIBER, COOL-UNDER PRESSURE MAGIC MAN WHO FINDS WAYS TO WIN UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES!)

Dynamic. Also, exciting.

Magic with somethin’. Amirite?

Obviously, there are some differences of opinion here. Also, I’m not saying every fan or non-fan feels that way, it’s just a decent portion; the level of intensity and research and ethical dilemma you put into the argument is inversely proportional to the how much that team’s success means to you.

Herein lies the rub; it’s human nature, coming down to the reasons we watch, enjoy, and obsess over sports in the first place. It’s a feeling of identifying with a team, and when they succeed, you succeed. Their faults are your faults. Their failures, then, are inevitably your failures. If you’re hardcore.

If you’re casual, it doesn’t matter so much, so you can focus more on the issues at hand. If you’re a non-fan, or even not into sports in the first place, you can devote all the attention spared for such things on the issue.

It’s true; athletes and celebrities receive more attention for the same problems that affect ordinary citizens. Dogfights did, do, and will continue to happen. Vick’s arrest and subsequent jail time won’t change that. Women (and men, mind you) will continue to be harassed and assaulted. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the truth. Vick’s efforts will not stop the problem, but will instead educate. Roethlisberger’s…well, he’s not really doing anything about it other than being banned from Lake Tahoe and Milledgeville, Ga.

Admittedly, probably not such a big deal.

So why do we hold these athletes and celebrities to a higher standard? As a journalist, I understand better than most that the actual personalities of these men and women are usually completely off-base from their public perception. At least in interviews, celebrities get the benefit of being able to show their true selves, but athletes are hardly ever profiled for being a great cook and father, or having a love of philosophy. They’re grilled about their performances, their on-field personas, and assumed behaviors from the million sports clichés bandied about on a daily basis.

She’s “giving 110 percent” right here.

Derek Jeter, for instance, is supposed to be a stand-up guy. He’s the Captain, the leader, the statesman. By all accounts, Yankee fans would invite this man to their wedding to give the best man toast, fix their gutters, and even take their sister out to a nice dinner, because they wholeheartedly believe he would call her the next day.

Why?

He doesn’t curse in interviews, he’s polite to reporters, and he’s never been caught with drugs, prostitutes, or in an unfortunate Rounders remake.

But what does that tell us about his personality? Absolutely nothing. He could be a puppy-kicking, crack-stepping-on, porn-obsessed psychopath, but because he says “sir” and “ma’am” and doesn’t get caught with his hand in a transgendered hooker’s nethers, people think he’s the Yankee Jesus.

See? Yankee Jesus. He also turns water into beer and Red Sox fans into doormats.

See the issue here? There is absolutely no way to comprehensively know a person’s personality who spends their time in the media circus of celebrity. Assumptions can be made, stereotypes can be employed, but you, as the fan, will never know if hanging out with Tom Brady would be a cool as you think.

Here’s a tip: it won’t. Tom Brady is a dick.

Need I say more?

In any case, that’s what makes off-field shenanigans so damaging to athletes. Without anything else to go on, a conviction or accusation of less-than-stellar behavior is a huge negative on the scales of public opinion. To specifically address the “anyone who isn’t possessed with a violent hatred of Michael Vick, the Philadelphia Eagles (for signing him), Kevin Kolb (who got hurt, allowing him to start) and the sports media (for “propping this degenerate up into the spotlight, awarding him for his heinous deeds”), hates animals and should be put in a cage and given a Tazer enema” camp, I say this: Michael Vick, his buddies, and some family members had a pastime. It was a socially accepted (for them) activity that took away from the stresses of everyday life. He probably knew it was illegal, but not for sure. It’s one of those things like jaywalking: everybody does it. The thought process is “what, since when is jaywalking a federal offense?” The problem is, cruelty to animals to that level is, in fact, a federal offense.

He was involved in the killing of dogs. This is a fact. It’s awful, and it’s reprehensible, and it deserves punishment, don’t get me wrong. I love dogs. I miss my dog, Jebb, and I think about him every day. Anyone who commits violence against an animal should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

Here’s the thing, though. Michael Vick was punished to the fullest extent of the law. He served his prison time, and was released. He hasn’t been involved with any of the people engaged with the dogfighting operation, he’s given time and money to the ASPCA and Humane Society, and he’s generally said “I’m sorry” every humanly way possible.

On a serious note: This is Vick speaking at a school about the mistakes he’s made. He wasn’t ordered to do this, he just did it.

On the other hand, I give you the story of Donte Stallworth, a wide receiver who played for the University of Tennessee and was drafted by the New Orleans Saints. In March of 2010, Stallworth was driving his Bentley in Miami at 7:15 in the morning after an all-night hotel party when he struck and killed Mario Reyes, 59, a husband and father.

“My God,” you say. “A DUI and a dead pedestrian! They had to have thrown the book at him, right? He’s still in jail, I’m sure.”

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. No.

Stallworth served 24 days in city jail. He was only sentenced to 30 days. He and his lawyers settled with the Reyes family out of court to avoid a massive lawsuit. Even with all this, he can’t still be playing football, right? I mean, who would want him?

The 2011 Washington Redskins, that’s who. Immediately after the conviction, he was suspended for a year from football by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, during which time he probably found many ways to use the $4.5 million roster bonus the Cleveland Browns gave him the night before the accident.

We can only hope.

So let’s recap: Vick hangs out with buddies, dogs are killed. He serves 18 months in federal prison, loses all of his finances, and becomes a public pariah. Stallworth, on the other hand, gets wasted, gets behind the wheel of a car, and makes an innocent family man roadkill. He serves 24 days in city jail, pays the family off, sits on his ass for a year, and you’ve probably never heard of him.

But why? Why, why is this injustice carried out?

Michael Vick is better at football, and is a bigger target. Because he’s so dynamic, so game-changing, it makes sense from an advertising perspective to promote his highest highs and lowest lows. If some corn-fed offensive lineman got arrested for beating his wife, do you think he’d show up as the lead story on SportsCenter? Absolutely not. The American people don’t pay for sports, watch sports, buy sports apparel, and play sports video games to be the offensive lineman, or the catcher, or the defenseman, or whatever the guy in cricket is called who has a shitty job.

Like this guy. I think he’s called the “ballsman?” Riiiiiiiight.

Basically, it’s all about perspective. Vick was named the 2010 NFL Comeback Player of the Year, but think about how many things had to happen for that to even be a possibility. He had to maintain his physical condition while in prison (which is totally different than just being “prison buff,” endurance and speed are hard to maintain with just free weights), work out for teams after his release, convince one to sign him, work his way to the backup quarterback role, Kolb has to get hurt, Vick has to somehow retain all the skills that made him fun to watch in the first place, and he got even better. On top of all that, he had to decide that it was worth coming back to football in the first place. The entire league essentially disowned him, trying to sweep him under the rug as an afterthought. Would you return to a career knowing you’d have to scrape and claw and beg for every single opportunity, after you had been their king? It takes a lot of character for a man to do that.

Essentially, what I’m saying is this: sports ethics are murky, any way you slice it. Even more so, I’d say, than traditional ethics, because there’s so much less objective evidence to base rational decisions on. Societal pressures, economic concerns, hell, even public perception of right and wrong all have to be taken into account.

So, the next time you find yourself out in public or with friends and you find yourself about to condemn another human being based on one mistake (or series of the same mistakes, whatever), think about it.

Would you want 350 million people thinking you were the Antichrist just because you made a mistake?

Like this, only with more angst.

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2 responses to “Ethical Nights: The Ballad of Michael Vick

  1. “On top of all that, he had to decide that it was worth coming back to football in the first place. The entire league essentially disowned him, trying to sweep him under the rug as an afterthought. Would you return to a career knowing you’d have to scrape and claw and beg for every single opportunity, after you had been their king? It takes a lot of character for a man to do that.”
    No, it does not. It just takes millions of dollars. That being said, a very well written piece.

  2. For the record, the one-year deal he signed with the Eagles wasn’t for “millions of dollars.” He signed a one-year contract for a relatively palrty sum with no guarantee of playing time. Kolb was the designated starter through the entire offseason, a decision made as soon as they let McNabb go to Washington.

    He got the $100 million deal after he decided to come back to the game. Money wasn’t (at least to the impartial outsider) a motivating factor.

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