Michael Vick has a 10-year contract with the Atlanta Falcons for $130 million. His skill at running, kicking and throwing a football has won him the admiration of millions — until now. As you probably know, Vick has been charged with involvement in the cruel and illegal “sport” of dog fighting. Americans may not care if an athlete beats his wife, but we love our pets. Breeding and training dogs to fight and kill, disposing of the losers by hanging, electrocution, slamming them repeatedly onto the floor — this is definitely taking machismo too far.
In his recent piece for The Nation‘s website, Dave Zirin makes some valid points. Yes, Vick deserves some semblance of the presumption of innocence in the media. (Vick claims others ran the dog fight business from his Virginia house without his knowledge when he wasn’t present.) And yes, there’s racism in some of the virulent attacks on him on sports and news websites. References to lynching, the n-word and OJ do suggest something besides love of animals.
But I was appalled by Zirin’s attempt to shift focus away from Vick to “the self-righteousness of the media” and the hypocrisy of “American culture” which “celebrates violent sports — especially football — and is insensitive to the consequences that the weekly scrum has on the bodies and minds of its players” like Earl Campbell and Andre Waters and other middle-aged ex-footballers who suffered long-term damage from old injuries. Like the accusations of racism, this sounds like a rather desperate bid to change the subject. Why should one concern displace the other? Can’t one both feel revulsion at animal torture and want the game to be safer? 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. If you take that view, though, everyone should get amnesty: the racist cop, the Enron executive, the porn-loving tormenters of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and all the other people we love to attack at The Nation. Why do I think we are not going to recommend our readers lighten up on, say, Scooter Libby, on the grounds that working for Dick Cheney would warp anyone’s moral fibre? We only deploy the blame-society argument on behalf of people we already sympathize with.
As human beings go, Michael Vick had more freedom of action than most. Nobody claims he electrocuted dogs to put food on the table. If — note I said if — he’s found guilty, he should get the same sentence other people get who are convicted of the same crimes. Increased sensitivity to animal welfare may have its annoying pieties and hypocrisies but it marks a true contemporary moral advance and it’s not as if we humans have so many of those to show for ourselves. It’s good that dog fighting is banned. And if football is really as morally destructive as Zirin claims — if it really turns ordinary men into sadists through a culture of “trickle-down violence” — then maybe we should ban it too.
ADDENDUM: I thought I would enjoy having a comments section on this blog, but as you can see I’ve turned it off. For some reason, the website’s comment sections have been colonized by a small group of trolls–mostly men, mostly conservative — who post obsessively, rudely, inanely and irrelevantly. I just got tired of hosting their sandbox.