Season of Scandals
5. Who Let the Gasbags Out
"Personally, I'd like to see Vick locked in a cage with six to eight of those pit bulls and nothing but his hands to use in his own defense. Goodness, yes, an eye for an eye is sometimes the only just punishment." --Michael Wilbon in the Washington Post, August 25, 2007
The moralizing of sportswriters is a critical aspect of our limited charm. It is expected because we are democracy's cheerleaders; our moralizing is a cultural signifier. The Vick avalanche was, in part, brought down by the animal rights lobby. (As one sportswriter pointed out on TV, Vick would have suffered less had he committed rape. He was right, of course, and lost his TV gig for the comment.) Also at play were the notions that star athletes have social responsibilities and that a vicious crime requires a punishment.
Underlying it all, I suspect, was the frustrated fury of the sports media in the wake of Bonds's crime without punishment. For several years now, the media had raged at Bonds's alleged steroid use, mocked his engorged body and head, sniped back when he showed his undisguised disdain for them. He ignored them and pounded on. He may even come back next year to add to his record.
How else, I wonder, could the Washington Post's nonpareil Wilbon wax so violently above--or his splendid colleague Sally Jenkins have written in such a similarly vehement vein (as in this passage)?
If an animal didn't perform well enough, if it wasn't champion enough, if it was in Vick's judgment flawed, he strangled it, drowned it, electrocuted it or beat it to death on the ground. Vick and his pals deliberately enslaved and tormented weaker creatures, and killed those they considered inferior. The dogs had faces and voices that would have eloquently expressed their agony, and Vick hurt them anyway, repeatedly. The crimes may have been committed against canines, but at issue is basic humanity. Commit those crimes against people, and the words we'd use for it are fascism, and genocide. Don't kid yourself: The people who are so angry at Vick are angry for all the right reasons.
They may well be. But their barking made it hard for me to think of anything else.
I found a calm center, though, in the work of two columnists I have long admired. Their views were not universally popular and some claimed to find whiffs of self-hate, racism, even pandering to the power structure in them, but I thought each represented a smart, bold stand that needs to be considered seriously.
Jason Whitlock of the Kansas City Star wrote:
[Vick] threw it all away because he bought into the self-destructive, immature, hip-hop model of "keeping it real." The Atlanta Falcons and owner Arthur Blank introduced and ushered Michael Vick into a brand-new world, a world that required Vick to carry himself in a more mainstream manner, a world of wealth, privilege, responsibility and the appearance of ethics and morality. It's a world all starting quarterbacks are asked to join. The position is the most prestigious in sports.
Vick wanted to do things his way. He wanted to customize the position in terms of style of play and off-field demeanor. He wanted to keep it real by keeping his feet in the seedy world he once knew and the new world that demanded a squeakier image.
The worlds don't mix.
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote:
Somewhere between Jackie Robinson and Michael Vick, things got all fouled up. "Street cred" became the anthem of the modern black athlete, this misguided notion that the only way to appeal to the young demographic of the sneaker-buying public was to adopt the negative attitudes of the thug life popularized by black hip-hop/gangster rappers. Vick...got hijacked, and we all let it happen. We let it happen by passively condoning this mess. We did it when we turned Allen Iverson into a marketing icon and rejected someone like Grant Hill because he lacked "street cred." We allowed it to happen every time we gave Vick the benefit of the doubt when he kept stumbling and offering weak alibis for his stupidity. We allowed it to happen slowly, insidiously over the past 20 years. The problem is the hijacking of African-American culture by the hip-hop generation that has helped glorify every rotten, foul and disgusting racial stereotype it took generations to eradicate.
That's not the whole story, of course. Go check out the fascinating dust-up between two of my favorite Nation writers, Dave Zirin and Katha Pollitt. They write about the NFL's culture of violence (where could the League have learned that?), as well as racism and individual responsibility.
In any case, Vick, too, was a great distraction of the summer. Zirin asks, "How can we rally for the pit bull when one million Iraqis are dead and the US media barely yawns?"