Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Crucifying Michael Vick
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Soon to be former Atlanta Falcons star quarterback Michael Vick never had a chance. The instant word publicly leaked out that he’d be slapped with an indictment by the feds, he could kiss his football cleats good-bye. The indictment was just a formality. Those good government high school civics courses feed us the myth of the little Constitutional admonition innocent until proven guilty. But Vick was tried, convicted and sentenced in the only court that counts in the big money world of sports and celebrity hood, and that’s the court of public opinion.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Falcons owner Arthur Blank heard Senators John Kerry and Robert Byrd lambaste Vick in the Senate, and saw those picket signs, and heard the screams and taunts and jeers from the PETA orchestrated pack outside the Richmond, Virginia courthouse when Vick surrendered. They listened and watched as sports writers and TV commentators angrily denounced Vick. They heard sports talk jocks saber-rattle against Vick on sports shows and fans burn up Internet chat rooms screaming for his head. They watched as Nike and other firms that Vick had endorsement deals with melt away like hot butter. They watched the NAACP issue a tepid and cautious statement pleading against a rush to judgment against him and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference quickly withdraw their invitation for him to appear and be honored at their annual confab. When Vick’s pals fingered him as being knee deep in the dog battering that did it. No pads, scrimmages, training camp, and definitely no games for Vick. If he hadn’t had a bonafide multi-year contract with the Falcons after Goodell barred him from the Falcon’s training camp he wouldn’t have gotten a nickel in pay.

As celebrity athletes go, even the deal that federal prosecutors offered Vick is anything but generous. He won’t wear an ankle bracelet, be allowed to tool around his estate under house watch, and he won’t get a walk around the street probation stint. He’ll do time, and, it may not be in a cushy country club fed prison. Prosecutors tipped that when they said they’d make an object lesson of him that animal abuse won’t be tolerated and will be severely punished. That of course, is bluster, the breeding, training and even killing of dog gladiators won’t grind to a halt, the dozens of magazines that prep the “sport” will continue to do brisk sales, and thousands will continue to toss hefty cash into the ring at the dog matches. Vick will just be a bare footnote to all of that.

However, he is an object lesson but for a far different reason than what the prosecutors had in mind. More often than not, celebs and sports superstars, even black ones, get cut a lot of slack for their boorish, stupid, arrogant acts and misdeeds, and in some cases even criminal behavior. They are after all the repository of the fantasies and delusions of a public and advertisers, sportswriters, and TV executives that are in desperate need of vicarious escape, titillation, excitement and profits. The sports hero fulfills all of that. He or she seduces, strokes, and comforts those fantasies. They are expected to operate above the fray of human problems, and at the same time raise society’s expectation of what’s good and pure. He or she is rewarded handsomely for what he or she does as a fantasy filler, not for who the often terribly flawed person they actually are. That’s a false, phony, and horrible burden to dump on anyone.
Vick had the double misfortune of standing on the rarified perch of the football icon. Football more than any other sport mirrors the best and the worst in American society-- competition, greed, selfishness and violence. Vick typified all of those qualities on and off the field. But he also typified the good side of the sport--cooperation, organization, achievement and heroism. That crept through in his public statement after the announcement was made of a pending plea deal. He talked about respecting the league, taking responsibility for his actions taking, and he apologized to friends and teammates.

Should we feel pity for Michael Vick? Yes and No. No. He did the crime and as the old cliché goes he should do the time. He’ll still have what the average Joe and Jane that yelled their lungs off for him on the field won’t have and that’s memories of the adulation he received from a fawning public, sports writers, and his mega buck contract and lucrative endorsement deals.
Yes. Vick is yet another reminder that sports icons are the fragile creations of an indulgent sports crazed, hero worshipping, and celebrity idolatrous public. When they take a tumble from their lofty perch, those same fans, sportswriters, and league officials that cheered and back-patted their idols turn vicious and unforgiving. They can never cobble the broken pieces of their name and reputation back together again. Vick in the end waved the ugly issues of wealth, race, celebrity hype, fan idolatry, and animal cruelty in the public’s face. Poor Vick, Poor Us.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.