Michael Vick

A New Year, A New Hero

Part 2 of 2

Read Part 1 here.

President Obama recently placed a call to Philadelphia Eagles’ owner Jeffrey Lurie to thank him for giving quarterback Michael Vick the opportunity to play football again. See, after spending 19 months in prison on dogfighting charges, none of the NFL teams wanted to sign the once prodigal son. He’d lost all of his endorsement contracts and had filed for bankruptcy.

In other words, the President of the United States took time out of his busy schedule because he wanted the world to know he believes in the power of redemption and second chances. As do I. But this is not Branch Rickey opening a door for Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, thereby breaking the color barrier in professional baseball. This is a team owner who was able to pick up a talented player on the cheap and make a lot of money in return. It’s dollar signs vs. morality. We’re not even in the same ballpark.

Let us turn now to the phone calls the President didn’t make. He has not called to similarly congratulate any of the 6 animal rescue groups who took in Vick’s dogs, the victims of the crime, lest we forget. (It should also be noted that Vick himself has not yet made these calls either and his public statements are conspicuously devoid of any mention of his dogs.) The rescue groups, who have worked tirelessly around the clock to afford these dogs the second chance they so richly deserve, it seems are not as worthy to be thusly graced.

Clearly the president’s advisors have deemed Vick and his crimes scrubbed clean enough (or forgotten enough) to warrant Obama jumping on the bandwagon, much as the rest of the country. This only serves to reinforce my opinion that we, society, are culpable for Vick’s resurgence. People complain about Snooki, but if no one watched Jersey Shore, the show would go off the air. Likewise, if no one went to Eagles’ games or bought football jerseys with the number 7 emblazoned on them, Vick would likely have to find a job doing something else. Something out of the public eye. We have only ourselves to blame.

Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, who had originally stated that all of the dogs should be euthanized and then recanted, may have been instrumental in organizing the bandwagon to begin with. It seems to have backfired on him. He recently supported Vick’s desire to get a dog when his probationary period ends. Vick’s little girl wants a dog, and every little girl should be able to have a dog, Pacelle writes unbelievably in a blog post. Would you allow a murderer to own a gun, even after he claims to be reformed? Get the girl a cat or a parrot. In the post, Pacelle says that after spending so much time with Vick in recent months, he feels qualified to make the statement unequivocally. The reason he’s spent so much time with Vick is that he parades the quarterback around at inner city schools to talk to kids about the ills of dogfighting. Is this helpful or hurtful?

I’m not trying to take pot shots at Wayne Pacelle or the HSUS. They are a great organization that has been instrumental in animal welfare reform. Pacelle has little choice but to endorse the crazy notion of Vick owning a dog because it seems he is now caught up in a tail wagging the dog situation, pun intended. He, along with Lurie, reinvigorated the Vick machine and now are swept up in the tide. About face and lose face. But who keeps the Vick machine at high tide? We do.

Visiting my family for Christmas, we had a long discussion about this very topic. I admitted that I oscillate between thinking that it’s good for Vick to be doing his community service time talking to inner city kids (as opposed to picking up highway trash) and thinking that it only serves to make his tide ride higher, giving him yet another platform to show off what a great guy he is now and how he suddenly (as in when he got caught) saw the horribleness of what he was doing. I told them about my recent interview with Joy Southard, director of Healing Species of Texas. Southard is so passionate about the work she is doing that after a conversation with her, you want to be a better person. Healing Species is a violence intervention program in targeted schools designed to offer kids life skills – compassion, self-esteem, anger management, etc.  “It is necessary to reach the kids,” Joy told me, “who are growing up in homes where it is okay to chain a dog in the yard or witness dog fighting rings. If they don’t know anything different, then the cycle continues.” Joy knows first-hand that the program works. One student’s call to the Texas state hotline to report dog fighting in her neighborhood was instrumental in getting that ring busted. Other students, risking being teased by their peers, are willing to be interviewed about their participation in the program and how it changed their lives. Southard, by the way, takes no salary for her work.

What message are we sending when Vick can make millions of dollars a year for, let’s face it, playing a child’s game, his biggest talent being superior hand-eye coordination, and Joy Southard who is reaching out to hundreds of kids in need and receives no paycheck? When Greg Mortenson, who sold everything he owned and lived in his car to get enough money to build schools for girls in Afghanistan, and Charlie Sheen who throws tantrums and makes regular visits to prostitutes while still appearing on one of the top sitcoms on television? When Mark McGwire denied, denied, denied allegations of illegal steroid use when he broke baseball’s home run record despite evidence to the contrary (only to admit to everything 12 years later), and Tim Racer and Donna Reynolds have to take a second mortgage on their house to help care for Vick’s dogs? Who is to blame?

We are. It’s up to us collectively help those who are helping others. To lift them up and value their work. To give them the tools they need to succeed. To be fair, athletes and entertainers are important markers of our society. They provide a common language for millions of disparate people all over the world. When I say, “The hills are alive with…” you fill in the blank with “…the sound of music.” When I say Joltin’ Joe, you’re likely to remember DiMaggio. We don’t have to be from the same generation, the same social class or even the same continent. This is a good thing. I’m merely suggesting that there are far too many good people doing important work who go unnoticed or unrealized because our attentions are elsewhere. We are too busy paying homage to the Snookis and Vicks of the world to notice.

For 2011, let us move in this direction of compassion and no longer be dazzled by the bright lights.

A Hero

First in a two-part series…

Tommorrow will be three years since the guilty verdict was handed in the Michael Vick dog fighting case. LA Times columnist Bill Plaschke wrote an excellent article about Mel, one of the dogs rescued from Bad Newz kennels, Vick’s professional fighting operation. Mel, thought to have been used as a bait dog, suffers from extreme fear of everything and everyone, except his patient owner Richard Hunter. Hunter is working with Mel to help him move on, but as anyone who has suffered even mild panic attacks or phobias knows, it’s not something that can be reasoned away. It takes a long, long time.

But not all of the dogs rescued from Vick’s estate are in such a bad way. Of the 51 dogs, about 25 have been adopted or are in foster homes and living relatively normal dog lives. (As per court order, these dogs must be fostered for 6 months before officially adopted.) Many more are just a few training sessions away from earning their Canine Good Citizen status. (Another court ordered requirement.) This is, to most trainers, behaviorists, and animal welfare advocates, a huge deal.

Why? When news of the case broke, most assumed all of the dogs would be retained at local shelters as “evidence” and then be euthanized immediately following the verdict. In fact even big time groups like the Humane Society and PETA encouraged the judge to do just that, saying that dogs from dog fighting compounds are notoriously “unpredictable,” “aggressive” and “violent.” But the dogs were, for the first time in history, treated as victims of the crime rather than conspirators. Each dog was evaluated on a case by case basis by some very dedicated and amazing folks – like Dr. Z at the ASPCA and the rescuers at Bad Rap. (See a short video about how they evaluated the dogs here.) They thought if they could save 5% of the dogs, all of the effort would have been worth it. As it turned out they identified 49 to be rescued.  (Two later died from illness, bringing the number to 47.) Other groundbreaking precedents of this case were the $1 million Vick had to pay for the lifetime care of the dogs (though I believe some of this remains unpaid) and his 19 months spent in prison.

That’s all background, but the thrust of Plaschke’s article was Vick’s recent triumphs on the football field. If he keeps his current performance, he is set to become the NFL MVP this year and maybe even take his team (Philadelphia Eagles) to the Super Bowl. Thousands of people cheer his name, apparently (or conveniently) forgetting the dogs that he, with his own hands, electrocuted, punched, slammed to the ground, hung, and shot.

Maya was a former Vick dog.

I believe in the power of redemption, the power of forgiveness, the right to a second chance. But when does one give up that right? Even though Vick has “served his debt to society,”  at what point does he use up all of his mulligans? One of the characters in my novel asks if everyone deserves a second chance. “Of course,” says Rose, the main character, thinking only about all of her own misdeeds. Is it Vick’s fault that we have such short attention spans that we have already elevated him to god-like status? I’m not the only one who asks such questions. Russ Vaughn posting at American Thinker has had similar thoughts. For him there is little debate about what kind of homage to pay Vick. The same holds true for Chris Chase posting at Yahoo Sports, except Chase’s opinion lies at the other end of the spectrum. In an article about Vick’s debt woes, including filing bankruptcy in 2008, Chase writes, “After serving his time, though, he’s dedicated himself to making up for his past misdeeds. It’s not heroic, per se, but it’s admirable. He could have run away like he does so often on the field. Instead, he appears to be trying to make it right.” Let’s not give credit where none is due. Vick has no other option but to make it right. His debt repayment schedule is court ordered. Given the option, would he be so eager to “make it right?” Besides how is he making it right to the victims of his premeditated crime?

No doubt Vick is a talented athlete. As Plaschke writes, “Do you cheer the player and boo the man? Can you cheer the comeback while loathing the actions that necessitated the comeback? And how can you do any of this while not knowing if Vick has truly discovered morality or simply rediscovered the pocket?” In essence, is he truly sorry, or just sorry he got caught?

Lest you think I’m a bleeding heart, overly sensitive to the dogs’ plight, let’s put that aside for a moment.  Now the question becomes: what is a hero? Years ago, before I knew what Bad Newz Kennels was, I wrote in an article that a hero was someone who inspired us all to be more than we ever imagined. I stand by that definition. But instead of dubious sports stars and fly-by-night celebrities, I’d rather call my heroes people like Dr. Catherine Hamlin who founded the first fistula hospital in Africa, and Greg Mortenson who helps build schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Jane Goodall whose pioneering field resarch on chimpanzees changed the very definition of primate, and Tim Racer and Donna Reynolds at Bad Rap who work tirelessly for very little money to help save these dogs. No one cheers their names, but they deserve it all the more.

>For more information about the dogs, read Jim Gorant’s new book The Lost Dogs. And here is a great follow-up story about Maya, one of the dogs rescued from Bad Newz Kennels