“All these guys who were saying that we’ve got it made through athletics, it’s just not so. You as an individual can make it, but I think we’ve got to concern ourselves with the masses of the people – not by what happens as an individual, so I merely tell these youngsters when I go out: certainly I’ve had opportunities that they haven’t had, but because I’ve had these opportunities doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten.” —Jackie Robinson
When did Michael Vick become a Horatio Alger story? The player who was vilified after spending nearly two years in federal prison for being part of a dog-fighting ring, is now our latest feel-good comeback story: a symbol of this country’s remarkable capacity for empathy and forgiveness. Vick signed a head-spinning six-year, $100 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles on Tuesday, and the narrative has centered on the way he’s been embraced by franchise and fans after falling so low. Mentioned often in an offhand manner, is that three years ago Vick was making eleven cents an hour as a janitor in Leavenworth.
No doubt the Vick journey is perhaps unrivaled in the history of sports. But take a moment to consider that eleven-cents-an hour wage along with Jackie Robinson’s warning not to use the athletic achievement of one to blind us from larger realities. Michael Vick’s janitorial job was just a sub atomic particle of a prison labor industrial complex intimately interwoven with the highest levels of corporate America.
The foundation of our bounty of incarcerated labor is the fact that we have more people behind bars than any country on earth. David Fathi, the director of the ACLU’s National Prisoner Project, commented, “The United States is the world’s leading prison nation, with 2.3 million prisoners and an incarceration rate six times higher than Canada’s and twelve times higher than Japan’s.… Prisoners can be made to work, they don’t have to be paid, and they lack the protections that free workers have, like workers compensation and the right to join a union. So there’s a real potential for exploitation and abuse.”
Among African-American men, like Vick, the numbers incarcerated stagger the senses. As Michelle Alexander, best selling author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, said in an August speech, “More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.” David Fathi also pointed out to me, “Most Americans know that the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude. What many don’t know is that it contains an exception for prisoners.”
A mind-boggling number of private companies outsource to US prisons. From K-Mart and JC Penny to McDonalds and Wendy’s, you can see the products of jailhouse labor. When you call American Airlines or Avis, the person helping you with your travel might be chained to their desk.
As Liliana Segura, a board member at the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and fellow journalist at The Nation, said to me, “Just last year we saw thousands of prisoners go on strike across the state of Georgia, in large part to protest the total lack of compensation for the hours they spend working. In Louisiana, prisoners at Angola harvest crops by hand, earning pennies per hour. There’s a reason people call it modern-day slavery. After the BP oil spill, Louisiana prisoners were used to clean up the beaches, a fact that not only angered local workers whose industries were being devastated, but also those who argued that such labor is not subject to adequate oversight given the risks involved. Prisoners represent nothing less than a massive—and expanding—invisible workforce in this country.”
Yes, Michael Vick has gone from eleven cents an hour to a $100 million man, but for the mass of prisoners who can’t run forty yards in 4.4 seconds or throw a ball sixty yards with a flick of the wrist, the future is bleak. That’s why in times like this, we should remember Jackie Robinson’s words. If we, as Jackie advised, “concern ourselves with the masses of the people,” then we’d properly view Michael Vick’s ascension as cause for reflection, not celebration. He made it out of the prison system intact. His story is exceptional because millions of people won’t be able to say the same. That’s what happens when caught in a system that measures your worth at eleven cents an hour.