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Web Letter

Mr. Zirin, with all due respect, are you out of your mind? Or just out of the most basic compassion for who/"what"-ever is capable of feeling pain?

I couldn't care less what color Vick is, and neither should you. I,too, am well aware of the profound and not yet dead racism in America. Can you not evolve your thinking to separate that from this event?

Out of an infinite number of opportunities for profit, a person would choose this one--painful torture--because it satisfies his particular personality's sadistic tendencies.

If that doesn't do it for you, try mulling over the religious implications.

sherrie pasarell

Bronx, NY

Jul 15 2009 - 1:30pm

Web Letter

I agree with everything David Zirin said in his column about racism in American sports. But I wanted to add something about animal cruelty. I grew up on a horse farm. One of the saddest, and at the same time most cherished, memories I have is watching my mother's first horse die on a snowy day in Maine with his head in her arms at the ripe old age of 34. They had known each other for over thirty years.

Humans can develop the most extraordinary relationships with domesticated animals that should enrich and deepen our understanding and appreciation for all of nature as well as our fellow human beings. It is a terrible commentary on the brutality in our society that some people transfer what is done to them onto their pets, and that some people even organize "sports" around that brutality.

Ninety-nine point nine percent of people who work to rescue animals do so for the noblest of reasons. My mother worked for years in animal rescue and shelter, and if there's one thing you can say for sure it's that most of the animals that need rescuing come from homes where the people need rescuing themselves. It tends to be the poorest, most ill-treated and least-appreciated people who have felt physical and emotional abuse first hand. In America, honest people must include racism as one of the pillars of the abuse that is piled on. Of course, dogfighting is despicable.

But it is at least hypocritical to single out Michael Vick as the poster child of animal abuse while ignoring the much larger, and more lucrative, world of thoroughbred horse racing. As sports writer Dayn Perry pointed out in the February 6, 2007, issue of The Chicago Sports Review:

While the level of carnage Arlington experienced last year is somewhat aberrant, the routine deaths of racehorses are an incontrovertible phenomenon: it's estimated that each year roughly 800 North American thoroughbreds die from or are put to death as a result of injuries sustained while racing. Even those that survive their racing days don't often meet with the idyllic ends we imagine for them (idly chewing oats in the shade of some verdant Kentucky farm). In fact, Ferdinand, winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby, is believed to have been destroyed in a Japanese slaughterhouse.

And this brings us back to Barbaro. If Barbaro hadn't won the Derby, it's likely the incentive to keep him alive for so long-his value as a stud-wouldn't be such a factor. Considering Barbaro's bona fides on the racetrack, his stud fee would've been somewhere in the vicinity of $250,000.

If he'd enjoyed a normal equine lifespan, then that would've been at least $25 million in lifetime stud value. Lucrative, to say the least. As well, the practice of artificial insemination is banned when breeding thoroughbreds, which means, obviously,there are no stud fees to be harvested from a dead horse. So there's yet another incentive for Barbaro's owners to keep him alive. It's not just track winnings that make these horses, more often than not, more valuable than human athletes.

It's impossible to say whether Barbaro's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, acted selfishly in keeping Barbaro alive for so long, but they certainly had reasons to do just that. Barbaro's eight-month battle may indeed have been a good, noble thing, but it may also have been a painful exercise in craven self-interest. We'll probably never know.

Needless to say, Barbaro's owners are not facing potential bans for life from their sport nor are they facing criminal charges. And for those who want to avoid the charge of singling out black athletes for condemnation as they throw stones at Michael Vick, perhaps they should make sure they've tossed some at the Jackson's estate first. For the record, I don't think they should. And, unlike dogfighting, horse racing isn't intrinsically deplorable, but all too much of it has become deplorable.

Rather than focus on media-driven individual instances of animal abuse and figuring out who we can scapegoat, I think it's time that we ask ourselves how to get at the root of the causes of mankind's inhumanity towards itself and the natural world. I don’t believe piling on Michael Vick helps us do that.

Todd Chretien

Oakland, CA

Jul 31 2007 - 4:08pm

Web Letter

Katha Pollitt and the Black Athlete
by Dave Zirin

Ms. Pollitt should know that if she chooses to debate a sports writer, we believe very strongly in the concept of "last licks." That means since she replied to my reply, I am swinging for the fences with my last ups.

Is Ms. Pollitt out of her depth in turning her laser pen onto sports? Sadly, the answer is yes.

For example she writes, "Whatever Vick's origins it's hard to see as a peon someone who is making $13 million dollars a year."

Clearly Ms. Pollitt took the well-publicized $130 million Vick is supposed to be making and divided it by the ten-year length of his contract. Of course, as even an ESPN channel surfer can tell you, that's not how it works. Vick was slated to make $6 million this year, and NFL contracts are not guaranteed. Players can be cut at any time and not see another dime. This scandal, whether he is found to be innocent or guilty, will cost Vick and his family millions.

Then she writes, "Maybe one day a white star will be accused of animal torture and we can compare the public response. But it doesn't describe me, or the many Nation readers who've written in to express their outrage."

But this ducks a basic question that far transcends the world of sports: Would a white player ever be targeted for such an investigation? And even if so, would a white player be scrutinized as severely as Vick, while being held up as an example of everything that is wrong in sports? This is the central point about this entire situation that Ms. Pollitt either willfully ignores--or about which she is simply ignorant: the very real racism faced by professional black athletes. Have you ever wondered why we never hear about white athletes breaking the law? Are we really willing to believe that white athletes just drink a big yummy glass of vitamin D milk before every at bat? That they don't drink and drive, don't smoke weed or don't hit their loved ones?

Arguably, if suspended NFL player Tank Johnson were white, would he still be a member of the Chicago Bears, because the police never would have pulled him over in Arizona at 3 in the morning driving through a white neighborhood? When white athletes are pulled over, are their SUVs searched for drugs or guns--or are they asked for an autograph?

When St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Josh Hancock, who was white, tragically died in a drunk-driving accident in the spring with marijuana found on his person, it wasn't then used to have a hand wringing discussion about "the state of the white athlete" or "hip hop prison culture." This happens every time there is any kind of arrest of white athletes. Here today in the news, gone tomorrow.

Moreover, the hypocrisy on the question of violence and NFL cannot be shouted loudly enough. Professional football is not only a violent sport but it practically celebrates the violence--as does the media that cover it. This is evident from worshipping the big hits (ESPN's "You just got Jacked!") to rolling out the Blue Angels and the military ads every Super Bowl. For their opening training camp festivities, the Chicago Bears invited Army recruiters to table. I don't recall hearing any hue and cry from the mass media about the NFL glorification of war and the thousands of soldiers and Iraq civilians being maimed and murdered.

Of course Ms. Pollitt understands this all too well. She is an important voice against war and oppression. But Ms. Pollitt sounds like Dick Cheney at a solar energy convention when trying to explain racism and the professional athlete. Not so much out of her depth as out of her element.

David Zirin

Washington, DC, DC

Jul 30 2007 - 4:09pm

Web Letter

Some of Dave Zirin's critics seem to find it hard to believe that the hatred currently being directed at Michael Vick has a significant racial component. Hey, if your righteous anger at Vick is driven only by your revulsion at the abuse of animals (and, of course, your infallible knowledge that he is guilty), why, that must surely be true of everyone else too, mustn't it? After all, it's not as if the US has a history of racial bigotry and violence.

Two days ago, Yahoo sports commentator Dan Wetzel described the scene outside the Richmond courthouse, where Vick made an appearance to plead not guilty to the charges against him. A large crowd of Vick opponents "screamed for the Atlanta Falcons quarterback to 'burn in hell' and held signs advocating his murder, torture and neutering." Wetzel notes that the anti-Vick group was "overwhelmingly white." He goes on:

Certainly not every animal rights supporter was screaming for Vick to die. Many were just there to support the cause of caring for animals, ending the barbaric practice of dog fighting and using the massive media presence to benefit good.

But a significant number were focused on Vick. When he emerged from a black SUV and made a slow walk up a ramp and into the courthouse, they pushed toward police barriers and let loose.

"Burn in hell you [expletive, expletive]," repeatedly screamed one woman.

"Die like those dogs," shouted another.

Nearby, another group held up signs supporting due process and the legal presumption of innocence. What a surprise, this group--advocating basic rights that one might think the average Nation reader would support--was overwhelmingly black.

"Not long after Vick got inside the courthouse," continues Wetzel, "and in a scene that was repeated when he left less than two hours later--the two sides clashed in shouted voices and dueling signs.

White people screaming for justice; black people asking if they still remember everything justice entails.

That a case involving dog fighting can break so quickly along racial lines is a testament to how it bubbles below just about everything in this country. We all wish it wasn't so, including both sides here. No one wanted this. Almost no one even wanted to acknowledge it. But it was there, plain as day in black and white.

"I wouldn't say it's a racial thing," said David Williams, an African American, in a hopeful tone. "It's not racial. But for these animal rights people to take one person and crucify him isn't fair."

The thing is, the "animal rights people" here were an estimated 90 percent white. The pro-Vick/due process crowd was probably 95 percent black.

Obviously, both animal rights advocates and due process proponents come in all colors. And certainly a circus show like this, revved up by a massive media presence, isn't representative of America.

But, then again, I also know what I saw and what I heard.

Thank goodness, though, that there are Nation readers who can fearlessly point out that Zirin is a "monomaniac," who foolishly thinks "race poisons everything." Get real, Dave. Whatever could have given you that idea?

Phil Gasper

Madison, WI

Jul 28 2007 - 2:14am

Web Letter

Here's a summary by ESPN's sports legal expert Lester Munson on the utterly brutal acts for which Michael Vick is being charged: "The government's case includes evidence that Vick and his cohorts 'tested' pit bulls for ferocity. If the dogs failed the test, the indictment charges, they were executed by hanging or drowning. In one case, with Vick present, the document says a dog was slammed to the ground until it was dead. In another incident, a dog was soaked with a hose and then electrocuted. Those aren't the sort of transgressions that lead to probation and community service. It's the kind of behavior that results in punishment, and the punishment will be jail time."

Now where did I get this quotation? From the same column that's being vilified here, Dave Zirin's "Who Let the Dogs Out on Michael Vick?"

If you are writing in to say that Zirin doesn't get the brutality of dogfighting, you need to take a breath and read the column again, slowly. If you're writing in to say that Zirin's exonerating Vick because he's black or because of racism, again, then please explain to me why the most brutal aspects of the allegations are included in the piece.

I honestly doubt whether this applies to you, but I listen to sports radio, I'm a sports fan, and I'm a person of color. Let me tell you, Zirin's column is a true breath of fresh air!

His main argument here is mainly about the sports media, its persistent racism and its hypocritical moralism regarding dogfighting when it could care less about violence against women by male athletes, about nationalistic orgies at sporting events when Iraqis and Americans are being slaughtered in an illegal occupation, or about the exploitation of sweatshop workers to make athletic gear. Nike and Reebok get talked about as saints for cutting their links to Vick, but not a peep is heard for their refusal to change the daily violence of their factories.

Let's put an end to dogfighting and sweatshops and domestic violence. We don't need to counterpose them.

But let's not shy away from the kinds of cultural analysis that Zirin opens up regarding both our sports culture and political culture: Why does our violent society pick and choose about what it regards as "too much" violence, and how do those choices get made? Why do we have coordinated organizing and picketing around Vick but very little when yet another person of color and/or poor person is executed by cruel and unusual punishment in the US? Why are there more animal shleters than domestic violence shleters in the US? Are people who are so vitriolic about Vick and his alleged participation in the horrible eletrocution of dogs also getting boiling mad about hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq or the torture and waterboarding of (Arab and Muslim) "terror" suspects--on our tax dollars and in our name?

Pranav Jani

Columbus, OH

Jul 28 2007 - 12:17am

Web Letter

Dave Zirin has a terrible torch to carry--racism in America. Through the lens of sport, he hopes to train a spotlight on racism as it exists in our sports-mad culture. Surely it does, but because that's the premise and end that he brings to every subject, his articles often amount to nothing more than the special pleadings of a monomaniac. Whatever the facts may be, he can be counted on to craft his stories to achieve his singular synthesis: revealing how racism poisons everything.

He couches the Barry Bonds tale in an imaginary America frothing with fanatical racists anxious to attack a man about to etch his African-American name into the history books. Likewise, his approach to the Michael Vick saga is to give short shrift to the indictment and the horrid abuse of animals and instead cast his eagle eye on a society that supposedly transformed Vick into a helpless victim of a bloodthirsty culture bent on ultraviolent entertainment.

In his religious zeal to unearth racist intent, Zirin here misses the issues at hand: that Bonds is a known cheat who will soon shatter the most hallowed record in American sport, and that Vick is likely the entreprenuer behind a brutal bloodsport designed to entertain--and profit --not only himself but his morally perverse group of cousins and acquaintances.

The Nation should be above publishing this kind of blinkered faux journalism, smuggled through under the guise of progressive thought.

Jason Hirthler

Atlanta, GA

Jul 27 2007 - 4:12pm

Web Letter


First and foremost I want to thank Katha Pollitt and all of the Nation web-heads for responding to my piece, "Who Let the Dogs Out on Michael Vick?"

I'm particularly grateful that Ms. Pollitt, who likes sports about as much as George W. Bush enjoys Russian novels, chose to enter the fray. But my gratitude is tempered by being rather puzzled with her and all who believe that I am somehow "excusing" dogfighting in my column. I do nothing of the sort. I actually wrote, "Fighting dogs is an ugly, brutal business, and none of [what I write] is to excuse anything that may or may not have happened." Seems pretty clear.

But that didn't stop Ms. Pollitt, who remained "appalled" by what she believed to be my "attempt to shift focus away from Vick to the self-righteousness of the media." I understand that Katha Pollitt doesn't read a lot of what passes for sports journalism or spend her spare time listening to sports radio; this probably speaks well for her. But if she did even a cursory swim in these unfamiliar waters before writing her piece, she might have found my words less appalling.

To hear the panting sentinels of sports radio wax sanctimonious about the charges against Mr. Vick, and then in the next sentence call to "hang him high" or "lock him in a cage with a pit bull," is disgusting, especially in advance of a verdict. To hear these same people inveigh against the violence of dogfighting while celebrating violence in sport--the bloodier the better--is just rank hypocrisy.

But my critique of the media is not all that appalls Ms. Pollitt. She also writes, "At least the the players were volunteers, richly rewarded for the risks they took. Nobody asked the dogs if they wanted to have their throats ripped out."

There's probably a sense in which Michael Vick is a victim. But it's the same sense in which everyone, from Alberto Gonzales to Paris Hilton, is shaped by social forces outside their control. In other words, pro athletes possess more free will than dogs. Stop the presses.

But to compare a Michael Vick or a broken-down Earl Campbell, or an Andre Waters dead at 45 with the brain of an 85-year-old because of Alzheimers--as Pollitt does--to Paris Hilton or Scooter Libby reveals a basic ignorance about the "athletic industrial complex" in this country. Joe DiMaggio said fifty years ago, "A ball player's got to be kept hungry to become a big leaguer. That's why no boy from a rich family ever made the big leagues." Vick and others are free not to play professional football. They are also free to work in McDonalds, or go to a public school that treats them like prisoners.

Major League Baseball invests millions in player development in the Dominican Republic, a country with a poverty line over 60 percent, where young kids drop out of school at age 10 or 11 with big league dreams. As one player said to me, "The options in the [Dominican Republic] are jail, the army, the factory or baseball."

The purpose is not to excuse but to explain. It's a fact that we live in a profoundly violent society. We are carrying out two military occupations, spend $500 billion on "defense" and have over 300 million guns in circulation. It shouldn't surprise us that violent sports, from the NFL to Ultimate Fighting, find a wide audience. It also shouldn't surprise us that players in these sports engage in past times that one would deem anti-social.

If Vick is guilty, he's guilty. But given the violence in our world, I can't help think of the quote by Eugene Debs who said, "There is something wrong in this country, the judicial nets are so adjusted as to catch the minnows and let the whales slip through."

With her latest essay I hope Ms. Pollitt, who normally tackles the whales with brilliance and flair, enjoyed her brief rhetorical exercise in minnow hunting.

Dave Zirin

Washington, DC

Jul 27 2007 - 1:27pm

Web Letter

This article is ridiculous! The media, sports and movies are not to blame here. Vick and his cohorts are to blame. I am trying to figure out how Zirin takes the blame away from Vick.

The fact that he has drawn so much attention to himself is because of his own idiotic behavior. I am a school teacher who teaches children who look (looked) up to this man. He is pitiful and pathetic in the fact that this is what he does with his free time. With so many children in need of role models, how can Zirin dismiss his behavior? Do you know how hard it was to explain what Vick was accused of? Even if he didn't do those crimes, he is still involved somehow. He was either doing it himself or hanging around with morons who were doing it. What does it teach my children in class? I am glad the media are reacting the way they are. It shows we are still a caring, humane society. Zirin's kind of reaction worries me.

This is not acceptable behavior and should not be taken lightly. What kind of people treat animals this way? You make millons of dollars and this is your hobby? He deserves far more then what he's going to get!

Sara Venizio

Staten Island, NY

Jul 26 2007 - 5:52pm

Web Letter

While I agree with Dave Zirin's overall argument that the media frenzy about Michael Vick is partially about racism and also that the 24-hour "news" market has made the concept of "presumed innocent" almost nonexistent, I have to disagree on his analogy of our lust for violent sport and the case at hand.

The fact is that the bloodsports that some people enjoycfootball, rugby, hockey, boxing, extreme wrestling, whatever--are engaged in by willing participants. Consenting adults who choose to have their opponents beat them to a pulp for money and fame.

Animal fighting lacks this very important ingredient of free choice. It is not the same for that very reason. These animals are forced"by starving, beating, and other abusive tactics"to fight for their lives. That is a very important and crucial difference that cannot be forgotten.

Laura Kehoe

Chicago, IL

Jul 24 2007 - 1:02pm

Web Letter

I have rarely read such an offensive yet bunk-filled opinion piece, especially in a left-leaning journal.

The author writes: "Let's ask why some of these fans can decry the treatment of dogs but barely acknowledge the pain of Earl Campbell." Mr. Limbau--er--I mean, Zirin, hail a clue taxi. Comparing how fans react to the "pain of Earl Campbell" to torturing dogs in a ring is absolute nonsense. You might want to take a refresher course on logic.

First, you have no reliable method of gaging what fans feel or don't feel about injured players, but for a sport that is peddled for its controlled violence, it is nonsense to judge fans' lack of outrage about injuries, since injury and pain is sold as part of the game's questionable "appeal."

Second, Mr. Campbell and everyone in the NFL voluntarily played a violent sport--and were actually paid for it--but are not playing this sport in order to kill another player in a bloodbath. And as far as I know, NFL players who don't perform well are not subjected to starvation and electrocutions until they die in agony. Dogs in a fighting ring have no choice about their fate. Dogfighting is illegal, football is not. Torturing dogs is also illegal, in a ring or outside of it.

Zirin's other hollow argument is the same one the unenlightened have always use against those of us who fight for humane treatment of animals--that we somehow place dog rights above people's rights, when they are not at all mutually exclusive. This is akin to the right wing asking how we could possibly want troops out of Iraq, when we should have outrage about 9/11.

Even worse than Zirin's article here were his comments on WNYC's Brian Lehrer show, where he said because some "aging, arthritic football players can't grip properly in old age, it makes sense that young players are attracted to dangerous hobbies" (like torturing dogs in a fighting ring). Only a male sportswriter could come up with this twisted logic. Men are forever excusing male violence with endless external pressures rather than owning up to it as their responsibility to reflect, evolve and simply stop.

Women are beaten every three minutes in this country. Why aren't those women turned into bloodsport addicts? And have you seen the number of times soccer player Mia Hamm has been knocked to the ground, without any protection, including a helmet? Small wonder she isn't at home clubbing someone with a tire iron!

And what about male and female soldiers, coal miners, police officers; what about their hazardous careers, shortened lifespans, on the job injuries and such? In fact, I can think of hundreds of more dangerous and unpleasant activities than being an NFL quarterback.

I know of no studies that demonstrate that football players live in such abject misery and trauma that their sense of right and wrong, good and bad are altered. Much more likely that they were originally attracted to football for its violence, and that their current excessive, over the top wealth and hero-worship status creates a whole lotta decadence, whether or not they limp away from it.

Dogfighting is a sadistic, illegal, sleazy, gruesome practice that has no place in any society, and there is no excuse in the world that can ever justify what attracts people to it.

Jenny Lazar

Brooklyn, NY

Jul 24 2007 - 12:47pm

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