Nothing clean about Vick's return

On the same day NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Donte' Stallworth for the entire 2009 season without pay for killing a pedestrian in a drunken driving accident, the Philadelphia Eagles answered the searing question of whether Michael Vick is too hot for an NFL team to touch.

Less than 30 days after his official release from federal custody, Vick is back in the NFL, having signed a two-year contract with the Eagles on Thursday.

On its face, Vick's resuming his football career appears to be a mutual triumph. He receives the second chance to play in the NFL that did not always seem a certainty, and the NFL -- Goodell, especially -- can claim it harbored no vindictiveness toward the disgraced Vick, that there was no great collusion among the 32 teams to keep him out of football.

As Goodell outlined in his reinstatement of Vick weeks earlier, all teams were free to sign him. One did. Moreover, the team that took the chance, Philadelphia, is a championship-level, signature franchise run by one of the most powerful owners in the game, Jeffrey Lurie, and quarterbacked by one of the game's most respected citizens, Donovan McNabb.

On Friday the 14th, Vick -- flanked by Eagles coach Andy Reid and former NFL head coach Tony Dungy -- was formally introduced as a member of the Eagles. The news conference was appropriately sober and serious, with the proper balance of contrition and optimism. It was devoid of the arrogance professional sports people often display when questioned by mere mortals. Vick spoke about having to prove to the public he is worthy of its trust.

"I know I've done some terrible things, made a horrible mistake," he said.

Dungy spoke of the signing as an example of "Christian forgiveness."

But there will be nothing clean about Vick's return to the public eye. All is not forgiven; and for a considerable portion of the public, it might not ever be. In close competition with Kobe Bryant -- and, to a lesser extent, Barry Bonds -- Vick remains perhaps the most polarizing player in the recent history of American team sports. He is no longer a person, but a symbol, and his return to the NFL only increases the intensity of his symbolism.

Vick will face pressure now as never before, the kind of pressure that will reveal whether he truly welcomes the challenge of reform or if, on his return, he merely said what needed to be said for re-entry. He will not be allowed to merely throw money at the problem, as so many often do. He must convince the skeptics that the impulses that allowed him to kill defenseless animals by such gruesome means have been transformed into positive, compassionate energy. Words will not be able to carry him through. He is being asked by his employer and the public to become the ex-convict-as-activist. To make people believe him, he must swallow whatever inner notions he might harbor about being a scapegoat for a larger issue, or about being treated unfairly in comparison to the transgressions of others. Not only does his reputation rely upon his success at that, but so, too, do the reputations of Dungy, Reid and Lurie.

And he has to do it in Philadelphia, a place of notorious temperament. The city will not make it easy on him. The people who do not believe in second chances will not be bashful about letting him know he's unwelcome, and even the forgiving fans will exercise a certain caution. They want to believe, but do not often forgive betrayal.

To some, his reinstatement represents nothing more than the distasteful recurrence of talent winning out over ethics, for he stands as another example of the unfair advantages enjoyed by the athletically gifted. Dungy rightfully said that the Eagles were not engaging in charity, making the point that Vick is attractive to the team because of his ability to help Philadelphia win the Super Bowl.

The first year of his Eagles contract will pay him $1.6 million. The second year contains an option for $5.2 million. The average American, upon whose disposable income the NFL relies, might seethe at the apparent injustice of that. Had Vick worked as a pipe fitter, an accountant -- or even a third-down linebacker -- before he entered prison, it would be unlikely he could find a job so quickly. It would be unlikely, too, that he could have had such an influential support group -- the Rev. Jesse Jackson and, now, Reid and Lurie, though Lurie seemed reserved, maybe even reluctant, on Friday -- vouching for him. Had it not been for his star power, his ability to add to the bottom line of winning, Vick would not have been allowed such a prominent re-entry. At one level, his return seems an example of the powerful protecting the powerful.

To others, Vick represents a symbol of hope, the living embodiment of the second-chance ideal in which this country often espouses a firm belief. Vick spoke of wanting, from now on, to be part of the "solution instead of the problem." He spoke slowly and soberly, but those real elements, the mortar which comprises people -- honesty, sincerity, remorse -- cannot be determined by something as empty as a news conference.

It is fitting and, to a certain extent, humbling that Vick's second chance will take place under the eyes of a head coach whose sons have been in trouble with the law for years. Perhaps Reid's perspective has been influenced by his own personal troubles.

Much has been made about whether Vick has earned the right to resume his career, about whether it is possible in this society to actually pay that sort of debt. But it is important to be clear about the definitions of debt, for these concepts are at once simple and complex.

Vick paid his legal debt to society. He was convicted in a court of law and served his time in federal prison. He has, to date, fulfilled his legal obligations as outlined by his sentence.

But there is a fundamental difference between a legal debt and a social debt. And for Vick, the repaying of the social debt has just begun. A spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) made some scorching and sobering statements to The Associated Press when the news broke that Vick had signed: "PETA and millions of decent football fans around the world are disappointed that the Eagles decided to sign a guy who hung dogs from trees. He electrocuted them with jumper cables and held them under water. You have to wonder what sort of message this sends to young fans who care about animals and don't want them to be harmed."

Vick must understand that whatever grief he receives in the coming weeks and months -- protests, alienation, disbelief in his sincerity -- is well-deserved. What he did to put himself in the disgraced position he is in should not be forgotten simply because he went to prison as the law stated he must. It should also not be forgotten that he had done nothing to reform himself, nothing to trigger the humanity and compassion of others … until he got caught. He engaged in a murderous and barbaric activity -- for his own profit and his own enjoyment -- until he was caught. And therein lies another hard truth to face: Had he not been caught, he might to this day have continued along that terrible path.

More telling, perhaps: During his news conference, Vick said that until he was in Leavenworth, he "didn't care" about animals, before he quickly corrected himself. It was maybe the most candid moment of the morning.

"Once I went to prison, I had plenty of time to think about what I did. I'd seen people's reactions," he said. "And up until that point, I never really cared. I won't say I didn't care, but I never thought about it. Now, I understand that people care about their animals, the health and welfare and protection of animals. And now, I do."

In today's cynical time, when the dollar seems to win every battle, defeat every foe, accountability is now as quaint a phrase as honor and integrity. Those concepts have been replaced by today's catch-all, the term "move on," which is nothing more than a callous escape from responsibility. It is so common, this, but never fails to grate: We need to move on. From steroids. From Rick Pitino. From Michael Vick.

Nothing ever sticks.

But it should. Vick is moving on, but what he did will move along with him, and it should, because what he did was that terrible. Just because Vick went to prison doesn't mean his debt is paid in full. It isn't. He took defenseless animals, stuck their heads under water and killed them. These weren't crimes of passion or self-defense. So the question isn't about forgiveness. The question is this: What kind of person would ever do such a thing in the first place?

That question contrasted chillingly with Vick's statement early on in Friday's news conference, that, "For the life of me, I can't understand why I was involved in such pointless activity. Why did I risk so much at the pinnacle of my career?"

He will practice with the Eagles on Saturday. He has asked for forgiveness from the NFL and he has received it. He is, again, a millionaire. But now comes the part at which the words and the deeds must align. Vick said he is working with the Humane Society and will work with other young people to make sure they do not travel the same road he has traveled. The words cannot be empty.

On March 17, 2005, in front of a nation of sports fans watching on television, Mark McGwire said he would "do everything in his power" to educate children about the use of performance-enhancing drugs and work with Congress to be a positive influence. Four years later, McGwire still hasn't done a thing. He talked big and went into hiding.

Vick now has an opportunity to be a source of light. He is going to a place, Philadelphia, that can be unforgiving or fiercely loyal, depending on what you give back. Philadelphia is not a place that can be easily fooled. Vick responded to his situation by saying, "You only get one shot at a second chance."

The path has been cleared for his redemption. His future is now his.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston " and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.