Vick: Villain or scoundrel ... or sympathetic figure?   

Updated: August 17, 2007, 8:59 PM ET

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I have an inclination to sympathize with Michael Vick, and not just because People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is denouncing him. They are popping champagne corks over at PETA, as Vick is the best thing to happen to the organization's profile and fundraising in years. Remember, the charges against Vick are accusations. The Duke lacrosse mess reminded us that accusations are not the same as guilt and that prosecutors might be unscrupulous. The NFL, the media and popular opinion all seem to accept that because Vick is accused, he must be guilty. He's been treated as guilty -- mocked, effectively suspended from football, deprived of most of his income -- long before any legal determination has been made. There's something deeply sick about the fact that you can go to the NFL's official shop and order a Bills jersey with No. 32 and SIMPSON on the back -- go here and try it yourself -- or a Panthers jersey with CARRUTH on the back, the NFL system actually says "Great choice!" in response, but if you go here and try to order a Falcons' jersey with Vick's name or number, you'll get a message saying your order cannot be processed.

Let me count the reasons I am inclined to sympathize with Michael Vick. One is that Vick became an athletic celebrity at age 16. Since then, has anyone ever said the word "no" to him? Did he ever hear "no" from his coaches, his teachers, Virginia Tech, the Atlanta Falcons, Reebok, Nike, Rawlings, the National Football League, ESPN or any of the sports-media companies, all of which were only too happy to indulge Vick so long as it benefited them? Vick might have believed he had become a Big Man -- someone no one could touch, someone above the rules. People who believe they are above the rules need to learn what integrity means. But only the gifted or philosophical can teach themselves character: The overwhelming majority of men and women need help from others to learn the lessons of character. Many such lessons begin with the word "no." Who in last 10 years has said "no" to Michael Vick? Of his friends, coaches, owners, university presidents or entourage, has anyone taken him aside and said, "Michael, it doesn't matter if you are on national television, it doesn't matter if you are rich, right is right and wrong is wrong." My guess is that no one close to Vick has told him this. In the end, Vick is responsible for his actions. But the contemporary cult of celebrity would not be possible unless the people around celebrities avoided saying "no." If Vick did what he is accused, it simply could not have been a secret to those near him. You so-called friends of Michael Vick, you coaches, team owners, university presidents, hangers-on and entourage -- who among you can look in the mirror today and say you acted with honor?

Next, I feel some sympathy for Vick because of the "send a message" aspect of the case. There's no doubt that many celebrity athletes are getting away with too much. Celebrity athletes as a group have become arrogant, spoiled and even antisocial. This should be a major concern for the NFL, NBA, MLB and ESPN. But even if other celebrity athletes have gotten away with too much in other instances, Vick's case must be treated on its own merits. Some commentators argue that Vick must be dealt with severely to "send a message" about athlete's behavior. No: Vick must be dealt with fairly, to send a message about justice. Seven years ago, the NFL took little action against star Ray Lewis when he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in a case involving the deaths of two people. Even read "in the light most favorable," as lawyers say, what Lewis did was stand by watching as two acquaintances stabbed two people to death. Lewis served only 15 days in jail and the NFL fined him $250,000 for conduct detrimental to the league. Eventually, he was back signing lucrative endorsement contracts. He got off lightly. (This is unrelated to the fact that, by all accounts, Lewis became genuinely remorseful and now spends much of his time in charity work; the question is what punishment was fitting based on what was known at the time of the offense.) But Vick shouldn't not be punished severely in order to "send a message" about what wasn't done to Lewis or other previous celebrity-athlete offenders. Vick has no serious prior offenses and does not stand accused of any act of violence against a person. He grew up poor in the crime-and-drugs plagued Ridley Circle housing project of Newport News, Va., yet unlike many around him there did not succomb to the temptation of lawbreaking. If Vick goes to jail and loses his NFL career for a first offense of cruelty to animals and gambling, while Lewis essentially got off scot-free for watching two human beings stabbed to death, that wouldn't be "sending a message." That would be a travesty of justice.

Next, I feel sympathy for Vick because there is racial animus in the current turn of events. If Vick really is guilty of cruelty to animals and associating with lowlife gamblers, these things leave him open to a kind of condemnation that has nothing to do with race. But don't you just sense there are loads of people who are happy to have the chance to condemn the first African-American quarterback who was drafted first overall -- via an accusation that has nothing to do with race? That there might be racial animus against Vick is not an excuse; he is responsible for his actions regardless of what others do or think. But suppose everything about the Michael Vick controversy was exactly the same except Vick was a white quarterback from an upper-middle-class family in Winnetka, Ill., Newport Beach, Calif., or Coral Gables, Fla. Can you say with a straight face that the public reaction and government action would the same?

Next, I feel sympathy for Vick because he tripped into a "summer scandal." Starting around mid-July, legislatures recess, business executives and heads of state go on holiday, Hollywood airheads fly their private jets to Sag Harbor, N.Y., to relax in 10,000-square-foot mansions while complaining about greenhouse gas emissions: The news world slows down. Every summer, there is a scandal that is magnified beyond its inherent importance, owing to lack of other news. The Michael Vick accusations are this year's summer scandal. His indictment came in late July. Had it come in October or March, far less attention might have been paid.

Next, I feel sympathy for Vick because he made his own problem worse. The Greeks knew 2,500 years ago that the most tragic events are those of our own making. When the dogfighting accusations surfaced, Vick was called to New York to meet with Roger Goodell. The NFL commissioner sternly warned Vick not to lie. The Atlanta quarterback then swore he knew nothing about the dogfighting house, and Goodell allowed Vick to take the stage at the NFL draft a few days later. The Iron Law of Scandals holds: Lying about what you did is worse than what you did. If Vick is a celebrity athlete to whom no one has ever said "no," he might well have concluded that, when caught, just lie. But lying makes things far worse. If the charges are true, had Vick come clean with the commissioner -- and trusted a good man, because Goodell is a good man -- Vick would be in Falcons camp today.

Next, I feel sympathy for Vick because he apparently is getting questionable legal advice. Here is Vick's statement, read by megabucks defense attorney Billy Martin, from the courthouse steps after federal indictment: "Today in court I pleaded innocent to the allegations made against me. I take the charges very seriously, and I look forward to clearing my good name. I respectfully ask all of you to hold your judgment until all of the facts are shown. Above all, I'd like to say to my mom I'm sorry for what she has had to go through in this most trying of times. It has caused pain to my family and I apologize to my family. I also want to apologize to my Falcons teammates for not being with them at the beginning of spring training." This statement is what Bob Haldeman of Richard Nixon's White House called a "nondenial denial." Defendants with good lawyers make one of two types of courthouse-step statements. If innocent they vigorously declare they are innocent: 99 percent of an innocent person's defense strategy is the words, "I am innocent." If guilty, they say nothing while the lawyers explain the defendant regrets not being able to speak, owing to the legal process. Re-read Vick's statement, presented by Martin. He says he "pleaded innocent to the allegations made against me," which is a procedural move -- Vick never declares innocence. He apologizes for causing pain to others -- but never declares innocence. Unless Vick could declare innocence, he should have said nothing. Bear in mind, lawyers don't necessarily care about whether their clients go free or go to prison, what many care about is billable hours and publicity. Vick's courthouse-step statement, which Martin would either have written or approved, was such bad tactics it makes me wonder what kind of legal counsel Vick is getting.

Next, I feel sympathy for Vick because he apparently received poor advice long before lawyers stepped onto the stage. When the dogfighting and gambling charges first surfaced, Vick should have gone before the cameras, made a tearful apology, begged for forgiveness and offered the believable explanation you'll see in the next paragraph. Teary before the cameras, Vick would have offered his time and money to a campaign against the abuse of animals. Had he done this in April, the scandal would have gone away, and Vick would be admired for honesty. I feel sympathy for Vick because it's obvious no one gave him this kind of sensible public-relations advice.

What believable explanation could Michael Vick have offered when the news broke? Not, of course, that cruelty to animals, or associating with gamblers, is OK. Rather, Vick could have said, "It's wrong what I did to those dogs, but we live in a world where governments, business and sports organizations don't hesitate for one second to do the same to human beings -- to exploit them, then throw them away. We need to change the way we treat animals, but most of all, we need to change the way we treat people."

You don't need to be Dr. Freud to see the parallels between killing a dog that lost a fight and cutting an NFL player who had a bad game -- or shrugging as a soldier dies in the Iraq desert because the Pentagon didn't care that a corrupt defense contractor stole the money that was supposed to be used for armor. Deion Sanders wrote of Vick's dogs, "Maybe he identified with them in some way." NFL Network quickly invoked Sanders' contract terms to require he not comment on Vick and the dogs again. Why does Roger Goodell, a good man, fear Deion speaking his mind about Vick and dogs? When the good fear honest speech, all should tremble. And if Vick is railroaded, who will say so?

In addition to writing Tuesday Morning Quarterback, Gregg Easterbrook is the author of "The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse" and other books. He is also a contributing editor for The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Monthly and is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.


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