Chilling. That’s the only way to describe Michael Vick’s twenty-three month sentence for admitting he bankrolled the “Bad Newz Kennels” dogfighting operation and helped kill the dogs that couldn’t perform. Prosecutors had recommended a twelve-to-eighteen-month sentence, but Federal Judge Henry Hudson, a dog lover with framed pictures of his pooch in his office, jacked up the sentence, feeling, according to a statement, that Vick was not truly contrite. Maybe it was Vick’s fame, maybe it was because Vick wasn’t the “first to flip” on his co-defendants, maybe Judge Hudson really loves dogs: but whatever the case, the sentence was without any gesture of pity or reconciliation: only contempt for Vick’s stated desire to achieve redemption.
Vick’s career has become one of the great implosions in the history of athletics. One would have to travel back to Shoeless Joe Jackson‘s lifetime ban from baseball after the 1919 World Series to see such a brilliant sports career self-destruct in such spectacular fashion.
Vick was the first NFL quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, the first to beat Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs on the road in historic Lambeau Field, the first “running” quarterback to be picked No. 1 in the NFL draft.
I remember seeing him smile with pride when he and Donovan McNabb became the first African-American quarterbacks to start against each other in a conference championship game. He spoke glowingly about how far they had come. How far indeed.
Now that Vick is poised to spend almost two years of his life in a federal prison, forgive me if I don’t order the “piss on Vick” and “neuter Vick” T-shirts Google keeps telling me to buy, every time I send an e-mail with the word “Vick” in the subject line. Forgive me if I don’t echo the words of ESPN’s Sports Gal, who wrote, “So let’s make an example out of our dog-hating friend Mr. Vick. Instead of a joke sentence, let’s put him in televised cage fights with other dogfighters, with all proceeds going to PETA and the Humane Society. Leading up to each fight, we’ll starve Michael the same way he starved his dogs. Each fight will keep going until Michael or his opponent gives up or dies. The loser will be executed by eletrocution, gunfire or hanging. I know this sounds brutal, but I believe in an eye for an eye and I can’t accept anyone ever hurting a dog. If cage fighting is too harsh, then Vick should eat dog food and drink out of the toilet for the entire time he’s in jail.”
The truth is neither so simple nor snide, and pandering to the worst instincts of vengeance–even under cover of irony–doesn’t make it so. The truth is that Michael Vick did something indefensible. He broke the law and is going to prison.
The truth is also that prison has become the one-size-fits-all answer for everything in a society that has the highest prison rates in the world. This is yet another example.
Vick’s conviction puts a capper on a depressing and scandalous year in professional sports.
There was the tragic murder and subsequent media frenzy surrounding the death of Washington football star Sean Taylor. NFL player Darrant Williams was also killed in a drive-by shooting in Colorado. NBA referee Tim Donaghy faces charges connected with mobsters and gambling. Isiah Thomas and the Knicks organization paid more than $11 million to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit. Cycling almost imploded through a doping scandal. And there are many other stories that read more like US Weekly than a sports section. The Onion caught the mood with the headline “Barry Bonds Home Run Scandal Somehow Becomes Feel-Good Story of Summer.”
Sports has risen to the top of the entertainment landscape over the last generation: a globalized, billion-dollar industry. All the attendant money and privilege, all of the desperation among athletes to be the best or lose your spot. All of the desire to hold onto your friends from your youth, the friends who were there before the money and fame drew every parasite out of the woodwork. It all speaks to a year of scandal that is not an aberration but the launching of an ugly, polarizing era. Expect to be picking sides in 2008 and in the years to come in sports stories that unfortunately have nothing to do with what happens on the field.