“The right of return.” It’s a powerful phrase that has been applied to both New Orleans residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina and Palestinian refugees. It means that forced displacement must be resolved with some sense of justice. Currently the National Football League is engulfed in its own “right of return” drama. The question is whether it should be applied to two very different players: Michael Vick and Maurice Clarett. The electrifying Vick, the only quarterback ever to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, is currently under house arrest for the final two months of his sentence for bankrolling a dogfighting ring. Once those two months are up, Vick needs to convince NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that he deserves to be reinstated. Most NFL fans salivate at the thought of a Vick comeback. But what about Clarett? As a freshman at Ohio State, the prodigy led his team to a national championship, and then unsuccessfully challenged the NFL’s age restriction rule. Now he is in jail on charges of aggravated robbery and carrying a concealed weapon, after agreeing to a plea deal. Since he was put behind bars, Clarett has been working toward a bachelor’s degree in geriatrics and gerontology from Ohio University. He makes it clear on his remarkable blog, The Mind of Maurice Clarett, that like Vick he also wants a second chance. (Clarett has no computer access in prison. He dictates blog entries over the phone to relatives who post them on his site.) He wrote:
I want to play. I am going to play somewhere. I cannot accept how things ended. I won’t accept how they ended. I am 220, rock solid. I am moving swift, running fast, and jumping high. My mind is right and my life is in order. I am 25 but I feel like I am 18. I am still young. Those who do support me deserve and want to see me out there playing again. I play with some pretty good athletes back here. In the penitentiary you could say basketball is football. Back here everything is aggressive. Everything is intense. I know I am an asset to someone’s locker room on so many levels. I’ve survived some of life’s worst struggles. I am not a statistic. I am still here and I am still living. I didn’t and won’t give up…. Hopefully, they’ll open these gates soon and I’ll be able to get out on the field again.
I would argue that both Vick and Clarett deserve the right to return at least to the tryout field. There are several reasons for this. One is that there are numerous players who have committed far worse crimes than Vick and Clarett and are still permitted on NFL rosters. For instance, violence against women usually meets with a shrug by both the league and the media. The NFL’s guiding philosophy seems to be that as long as your case doesn’t get a great deal of publicity, it doesn’t matter. Vick and Clarett are as high-profile as it gets. But another reason they deserve that second chance is that it would send a necessary message that those who serve their time deserve redemption.
Penitentiaries have created our own internal refugee crisis in the United States. Senator Jim Webb, the Virginia Democrat, is right when he says the prison system is a “national disgrace.” According to a Pew study, the number of people in jail, prison, on probation or on parole totals about “7.3 million, or one in every thirty-one adults.” In 1982, it was one in 77, according to statistics from the Justice Department and the Census Bureau.
With just 5 percent of the world’s population, the US houses 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The situation is even more stark in the black community, where 9.2 percent of adults are either in prison or on parole. The spike in these stats over the last generation can’t be separated from the “tough on crime” right-wing backlash that has targeted minority neighborhoods. Prisons have become a growth industry on the backs of black America. By at least giving Vick and Clarett the chance to show their skills, Goodell would be sending a necessary message that prison does not make you a pariah.
As Clarett also wrote on his blog:
Picture me being free. Picture me being successful. Picture me smiling. Picture me thinking. Picture me having fun and traveling with my family. Picture me giving back. Picture me graduating. Picture me living with humility. Picture me living with character. Picture my mother smiling and laughing. Picture me looking at the ocean from the penthouse. Picture me laughing with my big homey out west. Picture me being an asset to my community. Picture me being free of confrontation. Picture me working hard for it all.
It’s a hell of a picture, but one that will remain a dream if we continue to snuff out the light in people’s eyes. Vick and Clarett deserve a second chance–not because they are innocent, but because the system itself is so profoundly guilty.