Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Rehabilitation of Michael Vick

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The absolute last person one would expect to cut former Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick the slightest slack is John Goodwin, the manager of dog fighting issues for the Humane Society of the U.S. This is the group that screamed the loudest, longest, and fiercest for Vick’s head. But oddly enough in a media query after Vick admitted his guilt, Goodwin hinted that Vick could do much to undo at least some of the damage to his name by helping federal prosecutors finger other dog fighting rings.

It’s a nice try but it won’t work. In fact, given the way the Humane Society whipped up public rage against Vick, that fawn hope is probably disingenuous anyway. If Vick had information about other dog fight betting rings, sang like a canary to federal investigators about them, served every minute of a maximum stretch in federal prison, the outrage against him would still pulsate the Richter scale.

He could volunteer round the clock at PETA events, camp in front of fur manufacturers with a picket sign, clean kennels at pet shelters and bankroll and appear in ads against animal abuse. It wouldn’t change a thing. The imprint “reprehensible” that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stamped on him and his crime, not to mention the much less charitable epithets that thousands have hurled at him in Internet chat rooms and on sports talk shows would stick tightly in big, bold letters on him.

He’s not just a dog profiteer and torturer. He’s a rich and famous African-American celeb that went bad. When sportswriters, corporate sports product manufacturers, fans, and much of the public instantly tossed the presumption of his innocence out the window, he was fitted for a prison cell before a trial date was set or he copped a plea.

The NAACP Atlanta branch sensed that a mob vendetta against Vick had quickly welled up. It publicly pleaded against rushing to judgment about his guilt and begged that Vick not be permanently barred from the NFL It took much heat for that and drew the inevitable squawk that it was playing the race card. But it understood that in the case of men such as Vick, even when they admit guilt and plead for forgiveness, the words mercy and compassion are alien terms.

One need look no further than the other two Michaels, namely Jackson and Tyson, for proof of that. Even before they set foot in a court, the battle lines instantly formed. They were guilty as sin to thousands, and convictions were expected, even eagerly prayed for, for both. The courtroom play was a mere formality. Whatever public goodwill and fan support they had evaporated faster than a water drop in the Mojave Desert.

They could spend millions and hire legions of pricey publicists, consultants and image makeover specialists and it wouldn’t change one whit the public’s hostility and negative perceptions of them. The bad boy image of both was indelibly plastered on their foreheads by the public. The two Mikes realized that and didn’t even try to thaw the public’s frozen mindset toward them. They mostly kept their mouths shut tried, confined their public appearance in the case of Tyson to the ring, or in the case of Jackson, left the country.

Public revulsion over Vick's crimes and resentment at his fame, wealth and race only partly explain why he’s in a near hopeless spot when it comes to rehabilitating his image. He’s the latest and handiest target for a public sick to death of sports icons and mega celebrities getting kid glove treatment for their misdeeds or outright lawbreaking. The backlash against favored celeb treatment exploded in public outrage at the farce of jail time Paris Hilton initially served, and the equally farcical jail sentences for the other bad behaving girls, Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie.

However, there’s a colossal difference between the anger at them and the anger at the Mike’s and Vick. The party girls will be fawned over on the social circuit, swarmed over by the paparazzi, can resume (in Lohan’s case) a no acting career in movies, will be in hot demand on celebrity gossip TV shows, and can cash in their ill-gotten celebrity with chic magazine photo spreads and book deals. If their name is Martha Stewart they can even be reconfigured into a figure of public and media respectability. That won’t happen with Vick.

Vick will pay and continue to pay two steep prices for his crime. He’ll do jail time, cough up a load in fines and restitution, and be canned indefinitely by the NFL. That price is fair and warranted. The other price he’ll pay is that he’ll be the permanent poster boy for animal abuse and the bad behaving celebrity. That price is questionable.

If given the chance Vick would do whatever he could to get his mug off of that poster. But the mania surrounding him and other rich and celebrated black men that misbehave is just too great to overcome. The office of compassion remains tightly slammed on them. That’s as much society’s shame as it is Vick’s.

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.