On Michael Vick

I recently watched a program on ESPN about Michael Vick and his 49 former fighting pit bulls. Afterwards, my head was swimming with positive emotions. I wanted to blog, but I needed some time to process my thoughts.

Here they are:

The great thing about ESPN’s story was that it focused so little on Michael Vick. They got his basic details out of the way early. (He has been released from actual jail, remaining under house arrest, from where he can wander only to his place of employment and church.) There was no interview of the man himself. This story was really about the dogs, and that was good to get the spotlight off of the criminal, and onto the victims.

Considering the Sports network, you would think that most of viewers would be less interested in 49 dogs than in the guy who is potentially the greatest quarterback in football. But ESPN would not cater. Wonderful.

I would expect that some people, die-hard fans maybe, would have little or no concern for the dogs. “What’s the big deal?” they might ask. “They’re just dogs.”

But I have not heard such words uttered, not since this whole thing came out. In the world of sports, a lot of athletes get a free pass when it comes to bad behavior. Cheating (steroids) is sometimes forgiven, due to the pressure of high-stakes, highly-financed competition. But when it comes to abject cruelty, no one sides with the cruel.

Nevertheless, just in case, in answer to that cold “just dogs” mentality, I paraphrase Albert Schweitzer: Until we are able to extend our capacity for compassion to species outside of our own, we will not have reached our full potential as human beings.

Speaking of compassion and sympathy, most of us have none of it for Mr. Vick. (I don’t either.) But some hard-noses say, “Let him rot in jail. I hope he never plays football again!” And some folks deem his release as too lenient, saying he got off “scot free.”

I can’t say I agree. He didn’t really get off “scot free.” He did serve time, and he still has great obstacles to leading a normal life. But aside from all that, I have a strong belief in transformation and redemption. For me, that’s part of living in a Judeo/Christian culture. I’m not the most biblical guy in the room, but this much I believe: when a criminal transgresses against decency, you punish him to force his redemption, not merely for revenge. And in light of that, one must presume that redemption is the possible–if not probably–end.

Ostensibly, Mr. Vick is paying his proverbial debt to society (a society which includes the animals we love). Is it of any use beating him down for the rest of his life?

However, if he hopes to be welcomed to the community of the respected and well-liked, he’ll have to do something extraordinary to earn it—something that has to do with pit bull rescue, let’s say.

This brings me to another biblical principle: the idea of good coming from evil. What I see in this ESPN special is evidence that a lot of good has come from the busting of Mr. Vick’s ring. There is more Pit Bull awareness now than ever. Until recently, Pit Bull care was an underground phenomenon. Since Michael Vick, I’ve learned of hundreds of Rescue Operations, and people seem to be adopting more pets from shelters these days—even rehab cases.

On a tangent, I find myself indulging in some different kinds of thoughts, vague and disturbing in some ways. As I watched the horrific video clips, I kept asking myself what makes a person want to fight dogs. Why an athlete who seems to have everything going for him, with huge contracts and adoring fans?

I am closer to that answer than I care to be. I’ve been an athlete myself—addicted to competition, thrilled by high-octane activity just this side of violence, and attached to the idea of victory. Add to that my experience in stage performance, and I can say this much: It’s difficult to leave those feelings on the field or on the stage. They become a default disposition, the backdrop of your life.

In the lives of entertainers and pro-athletes, there is a lot of… well, a lot of “stuff.” On the dark side, there might be gravitation towards gambling, partying, etc.—anything to keep the rush going. On the light side, there are spiritual disciplines like devout Christianity or Eastern Meditation. (The former for athletes, the latter for actors and musicians… Generalizing here, but whatever it takes to calm down in between prolonged episodes of operating at the peak of one’s vitality.)

In my day, I had teammates who eventually went on to college and professional sports. Trust me, they are different from the rest of us, admirably so. It’s not just in their physicality. They have a monk-like, soldier-like concentration, and singular attachment to the outcome of competition. Victory is Holy Grail. Defeat is misery. There’s no “let’s-all-just-have-a-good-time-and-play-our-best” attitude. There’s an undercurrent of bloodlust, even for the most sportsmanlike and gentle of them. That’s what we pay to see.

(For my own part, I still recall the day I realized that I wouldn’t excel in sports, in spite of a .400 batting average, speed, and handy fielding ability: I just didn’t have the killer instinct.)

But I digress. This is about the dogs. According to the ESPN story most of the 49 have been successfully rescued. One was put down for health reasons. Another was put down, because it was too traumatized. Others are being rehabilitated and placed in loving homes—with children, no less. Talk about transformation! There are lessons to be learned here, I’m sure. If these animals, forced to fight on behalf of their own survival, can respond to affection… If they can soften, and socialize, against their previous brutal conditioning, perhaps anyone can. Growing beyond ruthless selfishness and knee-jerk defensiveness, perhaps anyone can transform into a decent person.

Perhaps even Michael Vick.