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Michael Vick and America's punishment obsession

"Michael Vick is a monster," Linda An spewed from the safety of the Internet. Insisted Becky: "I don't believe that this dog killer should be allowed to walk the streets." Robin Robinson put it more bluntly: "Go to hell Michael Vick...that is where you belong, not Pittsburgh."

These comments on a nearly 35,000-signature-deep Change.org petition represent a portion of the vitriol that greeted the quarterback's recent signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Facebook groups created impromptu anti-Vick fashion lines; a candlelight vigil was held for the "victims of Michael Vick;" the Animal Rescue League stated Vick should not be allowed to pursue his profession.

Vick is quick to praise the many fans and players who have supported him through the peaks and valleys of his career. He's a model for proper rehabilitation in an unforgiving society. Yet for some, Vick's criminal record seems indelible. Like the hundreds of thousands of other black men and women disproportionately branded with the scarlet F of a felon, Vick is chained to a perception that his mistake is his legacy.

"I've been fortunate to have more people willing to help me than more people who wanted to see me suffer. That group of people, they know who they are," Vick said in an interview. "But you're always going to have that select group of people who will always not agree with certain things that people have done in their life."

Vick, once the most exciting player in football, has satisfied debts federal, professional and moral. He has paid at least $15 million of his $17.8 million owed in bankruptcy, and taken animal rights legislation directly to Capitol Hill. Hate it or love it, he is one of pro football's model citizens in an era in which the NFL and bad press are synonymous.

The first black quarterback drafted No. 1 realizes his maturation will never be accepted by some.

"He wants to prove people wrong," says Tommy Reamon Jr., a friend of Vick's whose father coached the star QB at Warwick High School in Newport News, Virginia. "And he knows it may take the rest of his life to do it."

That challenge isn't exclusive to Vick. It's indicative of a much larger issue pitting society against ex-felons in the age of mass incarceration. Fresh starts are rarities when paired with a criminal record, especially when the ability to flick a football 60 yards isn't on a resume.

More than 1.5 million people were incarcerated as of 2013, according to The Sentencing Project, and more than 60 percent were men and women of color. This racial disparity is due more to harsh policies and selective policing than crime rates, many studies have found.

America has a punishment obsession.

"You don't have 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the incarcerated population without really embracing this notion of punishment," says John Wetzel, Pennsylvania's secretary of corrections. "I don't think anyone who would look at the data could refute that premise."

"Look at all the industry that stems from incarcerating guys from the court system," says former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett, who served 42 months in prison for aggravated robbery and now counsels young athletes, "through taxpayers, to how it goes from the lawyers to the judges, to the probationary system and all of that. That will tell you the motivation behind it."

But the tide is beginning to turn. Congress is finally realizing, in bipartisan fashion, the scars inflicted by the prison industrial complex, primarily on the African-American family.

Much of the attention nationally focuses on the names - Michael Vick, Ray Rice, Adam "Pacman" Jones. But there is an epidemic that has ensnared millions of average Americans. Take for example Ricky Wyatt, a 29-year-old man from Virginia who is serving a 9½-year sentence for federal firearms and counterfeiting convictions. An interview with Wyatt illustrates the desire offenders have to turn their lives around, and their pessimism about getting that second chance.

"I, for one, don't want sympathy, but rather just the opportunity to live as a man striving to be productive instead of a statistic," Wyatt wrote in an e-mail. "That's a dream that may never become a reality."

Prison has a revolving door for many inmates. Recidivism rates are highest for black offenders, with 81 percent being arrested for a new crime within five years of release, compared with 75 percent for Hispanics and 73 percent for whites, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Conversely, once a person goes seven or eight years without committing an offense, says Michael Thompson, director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, "you're no more likely than somebody who has not committed an offense to be involved in the criminal justice system."

Michael Vick is at six years. And counting. He had football to fall back on. Most released offenders haven't gained any work skills and are frequently denied employment, which pushes them back toward criminal environments.

"If you don't have a plan," Vick frequently advises, "you have nothing."

Sociologist Devah Pager's "The Mark of a Criminal Record" revealed the crippling impact race and criminal records play in employment opportunities for ex-felons. In her study, only 5 percent of blacks with a record were called back for job interviews, compared with 34 percent of whites. Furthermore, black applicants without a record were less likely to get interviews than white applicants with a felony.

"We still have an image of what violent offenders look like," declares Dr. Alex Piquero of the University of Texas at Dallas. He co-authored a study, "Race, Punishment, and the Michael Vick Experience," which found that whites were more likely to support harsher punishment for Vick and no NFL reinstatement, while non-whites held opposite views.

When the Animal Rescue League moved its October fundraiser from Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, it argued that although Vick "made an effort" to move past his mistakes, he shouldn't "continue a high-profile and influential public career." This judge-jury-executioner premise sounds familiar to many ex-felons: You're trying, but I'm not ready to forgive you. They're pariahs, better suited for "three hots and a cot" than a second chance.

If Vick, a world-class athlete and Madden 2004 cheat code, encountered difficulties making amends for his past, imagine the psychological toll faced by the average black ex-felon.

"I don't want to say this is the case for everybody," Clarett says. "But when it comes to black men in general we find a hard time of going through that process of getting that second chance."

Vick avoids discussing second chances. Not because he doesn't believe in the concept. He's a product of one. Rather, he understands how rare they are.

"What I try to stress is don't put yourself in a position where you need it," he warns. "Because everybody's not going to be as lenient, especially depending on what happened."

Vick's playing time in Pittsburgh will depend on the health of Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers' future Hall of Fame quarterback who has overcome his own checkered past. But Vick isn't focused solely on yards from scrimmage or touchdowns. He describes the practices, the locker room bonds and the sublime feeling of taking the field each Sunday as a "blessing in itself."

The power of an opportunity is the ability to seize it. Having a say in how he's remembered, on and off the field, is a godsend Vick doesn't take for granted. And it's a luxury eluding hundreds of thousands of other black men and women as they try to escape the penitentiary's revolving door.