The Miseducation of Michael Vick

Let's be honest.

If Michael Vick's QB rating hadn't topped 100 these past few weeks, no one would be talking about the miracle of his "redemption."

Let's be further honest and say that the orgy of "forgiveness" now under way on your local sports pages and on the national teevee can be translated loosely as "Did you see that? We need to be able to watch this guy again without feeling guilty."

Welcome to the moral vacuum of American sports and sports media in the 21st century.

So. A very short, sharp reminder this week, addressed to me and to my zombie colleagues in the press box.

Forgiveness is the most powerful expression of our humanity. It is at once the most and the least we can offer those we love or those we hate. It costs us nothing, but can set us free forever. Forgiveness may be our most extraordinary gift.

And make no mistake, Michael Vick has been forgiven. Mostly forgiven by most people for most of the things he's done. His simple presence in the NFL is evidence of that. He's been given his second chance and allowed to pursue his livelihood.

So to tie his "redemption" to his performance on the field, to his stats, to the excitement he creates, cheapens not only our forgiveness, but undermines Mr. Vick's chance for real success.

Because our unthinking admiration for his physical gifts is what got him where he is in the first place.

And yes, I understand he's taken up football with a new seriousness and a new commitment to hone his skills. That's admirable. He'll work hard and arrive on time and keep his shoulder to the wheel. But that's no more than any one of us is asked to deliver every day on the loading dock or the foundry floor or the hospital ward.

Given a second chance at the rare and privileged life of an elite millionaire quarterback in the NFL, 100 percent effort should be the very least he asks of himself.

The real work, the terrifying work of remaking his character, of becoming a good man, will occur almost entirely off camera. And will take a lifetime.

Please don't misunderstand, this isn't about some absolute notion of atonement. Nor is it an expression of pessimism. I think Mr. Vick is a smart young man with a prodigious talent. I further believe that he deserves the chance to be redeemed.

But only because we all deserve that chance.

Because I also believe that he committed a series of despicable acts, crimes of violence against the helpless. He didn't "make" a "mistake," as so many of my colleagues up in the broadcast booth seem to think. He lived a mistake and he lived it for years and his redemption will require a very great deal more than a good day at work.

Yes, by the calculus of criminal sentencing he's paid his debt to society. And the price has been high. But he has not reconciled himself to the rest of the community.

This he can only do off the field, and asking "Did you cheat Atlanta?" reveals only that no one in the vampire sporting press has the mud or the sense to ask the real questions.

If Michael Vick were still sitting on the bench, would we even be talking about any of this? If he couldn't throw a football 70 yards on the dead run, is this even a conversation?

Without that six-touchdown milestone game, let me assure you no one would be writing today about the depth and breadth and perfection of Michael Vick's contrition. No one would be packaging soft-focus video about the feelgood restoration of his soul.

And that's a good moment to remind myself not to confuse forgiving with forgetting.

The shooting at Mr. Vick's birthday party was six months ago. Six months.

His restoration has barely begun. And while most of us don't go to the sports page for our moral formulations, we at least need to cross-reference our entertainments and our realities every so often.

Because God forbid there be a lasting consequence when some actor from the theater of our distractions actually steps across the footlights and, you know, kills something.

The one thing Michael Vick will never outrun is his own past. As he himself said, his life is a work in progress -- as it is for me and for you and for everyone everywhere.

And that's why I forgive him.

Because like Michael Vick, the endless work of being a better man is mine until the day I die.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.