Among the animal-welfare community, dog lovers and people of conscience, the news last week of Michael Vick's ascension as starting quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles brought on familiar feelings: disgust, loathing, anger. The overall sensation was a discomfiting bout of déjà vu, recalling April 27, 2007, when a large dogfighting operation was discovered on Vick's property in Surry County, Va.; May 21, 2009, when he was released after serving 19 months in federal prison; and the following summer, when he was reinstated by the NFL and then signed by the Eagles. For these aggrieved groups the Vick situation is simple: If he isn't going to spend the rest of his days behind bars, he should certainly not spend them in the glamorous, adulation-filled world of professional sports.
Reality, as it often does, defies simplicity, and the reality is this: Michael Vick is once again an NFL starter, a celebrity quarterback who has not only brought a once-hostile fan base to heel but has it, too, in his thrall.
On the other side of the ball, fans and sportscasters seemed to have embraced reality, but only that of the present. The phrase of choice has been "moving on." As in "Michael's moving on" or "People have moved on" or "It's time to move on." It's a euphemism that can be roughly translated to mean, "Can't we just forget all that stuff and talk about football?" Well, no.
There has to be a way to reconcile these two positions, to join the past to the present. That process begins with the realization that in some bizarro way, Vick may be the best thing that ever happened to pit bulls and the antidogfighting effort.
His arrest and the investigation into his enterprise, Bad Newz Kennels, shone a light onto a widespread but underground culture. The eventual treatment of the dogs—a process of individual evaluation with a goal of saving those capable of being rehabilitated—set a precedent that has now replaced mass, unconsidered euthanasia as the standard practice.
Furthermore, legal authoriities learned that dogfighting cases have value. Their prosecution is viewed favorably by the public, and they almost always turn up other types of high-level criminal activity. In the three years since the Bad Newz raid, there has been a string of dogfighting busts, including one of the largest in history, which involved a ring that spanned eight states and involved more than 500 animals. Vick himself has spoken at about a dozen events organized by the Humane Society of the U.S., and the Eagles have donated $500,000 to animal-welfare causes and pit bull issues in particular. None of that happens without Vick.
Moreover, the Vick case marked the first time that fighting dogs were seen as victims of a crime rather than perpetrators, thus educating the public about pit bulls as a breed. These dogs have begun to be seen not as reflexively and incorrigibly vicious, but as misunderstood and mistreated creatures that have a lot to offer if they are properly cared for and handled.
It is also worth noting that Vick has not come out unscarred. Television is full of predictions about how the pending free agent is positioned to cash in. But in the wake of his plea Vick had to declare personal bankruptcy and is currently working his way through a repayment plan that forced him to divest almost all his holdings and that also limits his income. He's about $20 million in the hole, and his future is less certain than it seems. His success depends on a beyond-the-norm blend of speed and athleticism. Yes, his early play in 2010—including throwing for 291 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday in a 28--3 win over the Jaguars (page 52)—has been impressive, but at age 30, how many years of peak performance does he have left? What if he gets injured playing behind the Eagles' porous offensive line? And if the owners lock out the players in 2011, he'll lose another year of his fading prime without earning a cent.
In the end Vick's redemption should not be judged by anything he does on the field, but strictly by what he does off it. The best-case scenario would be for him to turn his second act into a rousing shout to the rafters by doing not just what is asked of him by the Humane Society, but also by truly making a difference, with more appearances and outreach; in short, by crusading. Banning him from the game won't allow that.
Vick should be permitted to play—he has served his time—but when we see him on TV running and throwing and scoring, we should see a football player and a constant reminder of the horrific abuse he committed and that others continue to mete out. And no matter what he achieves, his legacy should be nothing more than that of someone who could have been a revolutionary figure in the game but is now simply a shadow of that figure, trying to claw his way out of debt. From that, there will be no moving on.