I caught a good deal of ESPN's town hall meeting about Michael Vick, held in a large auditorium in Atlanta. The crowd that turned out was about 85% in support of Vick, draped in No. 7 jerseys and "Free Michael Vick" shirts, and quite vocal in their support of the disgraced superstar. The panel announced an ESPN poll currently showed that about 40% of people thought Vick had been set up to take a fall in some way, whether because of race or celebrity or the need of a scapegoat or some combination of the three. A few audience members suggested that if Vick hadn't been a rich black football player, it's unlikely that PETA would have targeted him so forcefully (these people have clearly never met any members of PETA), but these suggestions were met with loud cheers.
More intriguingly, the black members in the audience loudly booed the two black members of the panel, who had (apparently) voiced opinions condemning Vick’s actions. One of these was Terence Moore, who had written a number of columns expressing his disappointment and anger at Vick. Audience questions reflected a deep vindictive streak towards Moore for this, feeling he’d abandoned the black community. A friend of Vick’s carried a message from the embattled quarterback, who had said the only thing he was guilty of was being too good a friend, which I thought was an awfully forward thing to say for someone who had just confessed to dogfighting, but this was again greeted with cheers.
Now, up to this point, I had been in agreement that the Vick scandal had grown out of proportion to the crime. But since everyone can agree that simply allowing animal mistreatment is not something anyone can support, regardless of whether Vick was there to actually sic the dogs on each other, it gets easy for people to gang together against Vick. But how could anyone reasonably say that Vick’s been set up? He confessed. As Moore noted, "It's not like there's a grassy knoll or a second gunman. There was one gunman in this case. It was Michael Vick." There's nothing like a JFK conspiracy theory reference to clear things up.
Just as I was about to switch sides again and rejoin the anti-Vick crowd, Selena Roberts, for the first time in her life, said something that changed my mind. She pointed out that the dogfighting articles about Vick have ranged from commenting about how he’s switched from cornrows to an afro, to wondering how smart he is, to all sorts of topics you couldn’t get away with commenting on in any situation other than this one. It suddenly occurred to me that it might tough for anyone to look at the breadth of the articles and not begin to wonder if maybe race is starting to play a role.
In fact, all of the really high-profile sports legal cases of my lifetime have delved deeply into America’s sensitivity about race, from O.J. Simpson to Kobe Bryant. And anyone who thinks that the only cases that rise to the surface are ones where people are looking to take potshots at the black community are welcome to spend some time with the Duke lacrosse team this season (by the way, props to the NCAA for adding a year of eligibility to each of those players’ careers. It is, quite simply, the least you can do). This issue is deeper than that.
I don’t have answers, obviously – I’d consider myself quite an asshole if I thought I could solve any racial issues by typing up a two-page blog post - but it bears considering. The fact remains, will always remain, that race will continue to insinuate itself throughout the sporting community anytime something like this comes to light. And it’s time to admit that our two warring instincts – denying race is an issue each time, or making it the only issue – are both wrong.
Look, what Vick did was wrong, and newspaper writers have been right to denounce him outright for it, regardless of what race he or they are. But that is never an excuse to take it one step further, to make comments that in any other situation would be considered inappropriate. Even as disgraced as he is, Vick supporters are right to feel insulted that anyone would view this as a time to make a comment on the significance of black hairstyles or snide comments about black intelligence in this situation. It’s cheap, racist opportunism, and it should never be condoned.
But neither should Vick’s actions. We have a responsibility to ferret out racism from the debate on Vick’s sentencing because it unfairly clouds a clear right-and-wrong issue, and allowing to happen in this situation makes it okay in other situations. And that’s something no one should ever feel comfortable letting happen.