So, what does Michael Vick's new contract really mean?
Beyond the money, beyond the security that comes from it, beyond the status of being one of the three highest-paid players in the NFL, beyond locking him up to a deal that might otherwise have cost the Eagles even more if he has another year like the one he had last season, beyond the obvious reward for turning his life around so drastically, beyond an NFL team saying "We believe in you," beyond giving commissioner Roger Goodell the confidence that he now has one less player to worry about, beyond the NFL accepting that Vick has returned as the face of the league … beyond all that, what does it mean?
The money in the deal is not just an exuberant dollar figure. It's more than that. The $100 million Vick just agreed to receive from the Philadelphia Eagles (spread out over a six-year period, with $40 million guaranteed) represents the underlying nature and foundation of professional sports. It is the substantiation that winning and performance take back seats to nothing.
In professional sports, more than in almost any other business, the opportunities for and rewards that come from total redemption are often inexplicable. How to understand that a man who threw away one $136 million contract can get another $100 million deal before his 32nd birthday?
In Vick's case, the best answer (and maybe even the best answer isn't fathomable in the end) is that it comes with an atonement. It happens when an athlete becomes at one with him/herself -- athletically first, then professionally, and finally when he or she is able to sell being in a new place on the far side of wrong to the media and the public so effectively that we believe in the athlete's restitution even more than he or she does.
As Vick said (as chronicled in a recent "exclusive" GQ interview/article) to an auditorium of kids: "I stand before you a changed man. Use me as an example of an instrument of change."
That's the sell.
And it can't be faked.
Vick's $100 million represents others who've traveled similar paths. Kobe Bryant, who resurrected himself after the Colorado incident and won MVP and two championships. Ray Lewis, indicted for murder (those charges were dropped) and pleading guilty (via a plea agreement) to a misdemeanor of obstruction of justice charge in 2000, was a Super Bowl MVP in 2001 after he turned certain parts of his life and focus around. Josh Hamilton, who hit bottom with substance abuse but came back to win 2010 AL MVP and take Texas to the World Series.
It speaks even to and for athletes such as Anthony Hargrove, who was suspended from the NFL for the entire 2008 season for substance abuse only to be reinstated, get picked up by the New Orleans Saints and win a Super Bowl in 2009. In 2011, Hargrove has a new one-year deal with the Eagles.
Vick's $100 million contract represents Muhammad Ali's entire boxing career.
Not everyone can do it, and it's not in everyone to do. It's a benchmark, set as a reminder that many things have to go right and be right (right place, right team, right time, right attitude, right atmosphere, right mind in the player). For many athletes, the opportunity might be there but the "rights" don't all fall into place.
Examples: Gilbert Arenas. Marvin Harrison. JaMarcus Russell. All at one point sat on the mountaintop, only to fall off for various self-inflicted reasons. All seemed to make sincere attempts at a rebirth, but, whether it was something lacking in their performance, their professionalism or their personality, that next big contract never materialized. Perhaps they couldn't make the right people believe they had fully committed to turning themselves around in a way that warranted such an extreme indemnity. Perhaps they just couldn't make the sale.
Eagles coach Andy Reid said at the news conference to announce Vick's new contract that, "There can be an opportunity for a second chance … " Then, in the same sentence, he asked, "And how do you handle that second chance?"
Maybe that $100 million represents the future of Cam Newton and Terrelle Pryor, too. It lets them know that the "next Michael Vick" label that some have already placed on them has more than one meaning. Not just that they are black quarterbacks who happen to favor Vick's style of play but also that they come into the NFL with baggage, with issues concerning their pasts. It means that baggage might not keep them from a nine-digit contract before they exit the game.
It represents money most of us will never see, and a change in human behavior we do expect to see.
Talent trumps trouble. That's law in sports. The belief is that if you are gifted, talented and young enough, you'll get a second -- sometimes a third -- chance, that the opportunities never stop. But Vick's $100 million is not defined by that, not confined to that. It is an indictment of a society -- and a marketplace -- that uses sports as an agent of forgiveness.
Every breath taken by Vick as long as he continues to play professional football is a reminder that he owes us. All of us. Not just the Eagles. That $100 million has many more names on it than just Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie's signature.
Because we decided to believe in him again. We reinvested our faith in a brotha who throws a football for a living. We'll pray to and for him on Sundays and an occasional Monday night. Pray for him to win more than he loses, pray for him to never go back to what and who he once was.
So understand that the $100 million did not come from, nor is it about, devoting entire magazine issues to him. It isn't about asking, then addressing the question, "What if Michael Vick were white?" It isn't about President Barack Obama calling Lurie to tell him he was "happy that [they] did something on such a national stage that showed [their] faith in giving someone a second chance after such a major downfall." Nor is it about the Nike re-signing or the Humane Society's apparent forgiveness.
The $100 million is about resurrection. It's about redemption. It's about reinvention, recovery, rebirth and reparation.
It's about more than the value a particular team assigns to a player and the faith it puts in that player to succeed. It's about reconciliation and the power of the human spirit to exonerate those who have proved over time that exoneration is the only option.
Michael Vick is still doing time. We just happen to help pay for it.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.