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August 27, 2007

Was Michael Vick Just the One Who Got Caught?


The crash you heard last week was the fall to earth of Michael Vick, who, in one off-season, went from NFL superstar to object of near-universal scorn.


Vick’s indefinite suspension following an admission of crimes related to dog fighting was well deserved, albeit tardy. In a perfect world, it would prompt reflection that all people might be created equal in the eyes of God, but not in the spotlight of celebrity.


Sadly, that’s unlikely to happen. Since the first news broke that property owned by Vick was used for dog fighting, the quarterback has had his share of media defenders. Let the legal system work it out, they argued, before rushing to judgment.


In a criminal sense, this is very appropriate. It isn’t just unfair to declare Vick guilty of a crime before a verdict or plea, but it’s also a violation of his right to presumed innocence.


But that is a right in the court of criminal justice. Beyond that, when it comes to public perception and, most importantly, who occupies the public spotlight, there are no rights – only privileges.


It’s entirely predictable that he would want to protect his spot in a profession that pays him millions of dollars and, perhaps most importantly these days, puts his face into homes across the nation. Most people aspire to be rich and famous.


Those privileges, like everything, come with responsibilities. You become a rich and famous quarterback only because millions will watch an afternoon’s worth of football. Those millions of viewers inspire corporations to spend millions in advertising, and will themselves spend their own hard-earned money on merchandise. In short, there exists an unspoken contract between professional sports celebrity and the people upon whom they depend for a living. That contract is that, in exchange for adulation and money, the celebrity will provide entertainment.


What that unspoken contract doesn’t include is anything that suggests that the privileges of celebrity – and professional athletes are only professional entertainers – come with no strings attached. It’s reasonable to expect professional athletes to not engage in barbaric behavior or associate with those who do.


Why? Lots of football fans have kids. When they see their parents yelling at the TV on Sundays, they naturally think this is the thing to do. This is how a professional athlete whose only real claim to fame is in his legs becomes a role model. It’s not rocket science.


Only the most blind or naïve thinks that truth is an inherent product of the criminal justice system. Most of us understand that often the one who comes out on top is the one who is best at negotiating, bluffing and strategy. So, legal guilt isn’t a good way to determine whether someone has broken that unspoken contract between a professional sports entertainer and the people upon whose backs his career was built.


Over the four months that the story developed, it became more and more evident that Vick was at least a man tainted by seedy associations. The evidence in the public eye grew, even if it ultimately only meant that property owned by Vick was itself a house of horrors. There are many things you can say about America’s obsession with property rights, but the almost religious zeal by which we pursue them means that the reputation of landowners are intertwined with the things that happen on their property.


America might love a story of salvation, but dog fighting belongs to that group of acts – among premeditated murder, rape and sexual or physical abuse of children – for which there is no redemption. Vick could spend 20 years hidden away in a remote monastery seeking absolution, and he’d never escape being the man who bred dogs to fight for profit.


That some of Vick’s defenders came from the ranks of professional football wasn’t surprising. That some of them – most notably, and idiotically, in a newspaper column written by ex-cornerback Deion Sanders – edged towards a defense of dog fighting was surprising.


This means that awareness of the responsibilities of celebrity isn’t high among football players (which could account for the growing number of arrests), and it perhaps suggests that Vick was only unfortunate enough to be the guy who got caught.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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