I follow sports very closely, but in gigantic sports stories like Brett Favre unretiring or the murder-suicide of Steve McNair, I normally stay pretty far on the sidelines. I assume all the details will eventually get to me, and I've no desire to hear every detail of how agonizing a decision it is for Favre to decide whether to play football again. It gets old quick.
But the past couple weeks, I've been following the story of Michael Vick's return to the NFL closely, reading opinion articles and listening to the endless "where will he sign?" rumors with interest. I don't what dragged me into this, but... well, actually I do.
My sympathies are often easy to alter, as my heart always jumps to the opposite side of whatever group I feel is being particularly insulting or boneheaded. Regardless of the situation, when one group cannot separate themselves enough to make logical statements, or finish a sentence without some sort of invective, then they've lost my ear completely. And when one side keeps piling on and piling on, without any sort of response from the other camp - then I'm obliged to join the other side just to balance things out.
If you read that previous paragraph closely enough, you already know what I'm about to say: I've become oddly sympathetic to Michael Vick.
Not really because of anything he's really done. Since coming back into the spotlight and signing with the Eagles, Vick has mostly said things like "I'm really happy to be here" and "I just appreciate the organization giving me a second chance." All the stuff you'd expect someone in his position to say. Has he reformed? Would he do it again if no one was watching? You got me. No one could tell you that from a press conference, where the only important instruction you could give the man would be "look penitent." But Tony Dungy, who is both a faithful Christian and as good a man as exists in professional sports, has thrown his support behind him and guaranteed his redemption. That's good enough for me.
But maybe that's not good enough for you, maybe you feel that someone like Vick is unsalvageable, that he should never be allowed to play professional football again. Maybe there are certain crimes you believe offer no second chances. I understand that. After all, no matter how hard the press hammers Vick, he is not the victim here. The decisions he made brought him to this point - if his young career was cut down, he was the one who did it. He was the one who lost his money - nearly 130 million dollars - so quickly that a vast majority of both this contract and the next one will go to paying off bankruptcy courts. No one did this to Vick. He did this to himself.
But I believe that, if they truly want it, everyone deserves a second chance, and then a third chance, and fourth chance, and infinite chances out after that. And if you think that such things are just empty rhetoric by people who want to watch Vick play football again, then you need to read this story:
Naturally, with every article being written about the Vick signing, reporters have needed a reaction from animal advocates, and assumably the phones at the National Humane Society and PETA have been ringing off the hook. The organizations are asked for their response to the signing, to Vick's press conference, to him returning to practice, to him returning to the playing field. Their responses have been a study in the way that two similar organizations do business with two dramatically different philosophies about life.
The LA Times recently did a piece on Vick's attempt at redemption. Several months ago, while still in prison, Michael Vick reached out to the president of the Humane Society, Wayne Pacelle. After a long period of inner turmoil, Pacelle finally flew out to Kansas to talk to Vick. There was no forgiveness in his heart - the Humane Society had engineered most of the laws that Vick was prosecuted under, and they were the ones who tipped the cops off about Vick's dogfighting ring in the first place. The person Vick had asked to speak to was the man who had in a sense orchestrated his downfall. But Pacelle realized that causing Michael Vick's demise was not really his final goal: "We're devoted to ending dogfighting, not endlessly flogging Michael Vick. We are about not just ending cruelty, but also making people better... This can be about turning adversaries into allies."
When Pacelle and Vick met, they talked about how Vick got there in the first place. Vick talked about growing up in a rough Virginian community which, as the Times put it, "ironically and sadly, tolerated treating dogs the way slaves had been treated." He talked about how he started dogfighting when he was 8 and didn't stop until his arrest. And he said, for the first of many times, that he wanted to be a part of the solution and not the problem.
Pacelle made sure Vick was really on board, that he wasn't just in it for a little bit of good press before disappearing. Then he welcomed him into the organization. Upon Vick's release, he and Vick started touring the country, giving speeches to kids in areas like Atlanta and Chicago where underground dogfighting is sadly a dominant part of the culture. And Vick spoke honestly about the mistakes he made and how nobody should look up to him and follow his example. Sometimes he'd start crying when he talked about it.
The Humane Society estimates that they've lost more than 1,000 members since Vick joined the organization, but Pacelle is unwavering in his support. He points out that the Humane Society is by and large a white, middle-class organization (which is not suprising, certainly), and they've never had someone like Michael Vick to be a spokesperson for them. They've never had someone who could speak to minority communities, speak to the poor. They've never had someone who could reach into some of the darker places where people needed to hear their message the most.
"The worst you can do is write somebody off completely for not exhibiting model behavior," says Pacelle. "If we just stick with people who are already sympathetic, what good are we doing?"
If you can't hear the Gospel in that story, then I don't know what I can do for you.
The Humane Society has announced their pleasure at Vick's signing in Philadelphia. There's apparently a lot of dogfighting in Philadelphia, and it's long been a city the organization hasn't been able to reach into with any success. They've got more plans for Vick than the Eagles do, they're already working out the details on how to utilize Vick within the city, to travel to the city's darker underbelly to root out these places. Because they finally have someone for whom this isn't just a hobby or an issue to get hopped up about, this is someone for whom this work is a quest for his own redemption.
"I'm going let my actions continue to speak louder than my words," Vick said recently. "I'm gonna still be involved in the community, because I still - regardless of football - would have a voice that can have an impact on kids, because I've been a living example of what not to do."
PETA, by the way, has not followed the philosophy the Humane Society has. They've spent most of their time the past few months attacking Vick personally, which I suppose is not that surprising. Now that he's signed with the Eagles, they've turned their attention on them. They've spoken out against the team. They're considering protests at the games. They're encouraging fans to turn on their home team, telling them they are now terrible people for being Eagles fans. They've even asked Eagles players to ostracize Vick. Still, they're better than the organization that is renting billboards on the highways surrounding the Eagles' stadium to tell fans they are terrible people for going to Eagles games.
Still, its PETA who earns my ire because when, during Vick's trial, they were approached with the opportunity to rehabilitate the dogs left over from the dogfighting ring, they refused, saying it would be more money than it was worth. Apparently, they're all for the ethical treatment of animals, as long as they don't have to do any of the work. After all, isn't there another ad campaign featuring a moderately famous actress taking all her clothes off to shoot? Keep in mind, this wasn't going to cost them any money. Under court orders, Vick was the one who actually paid the $1 million to rehab the animals, who were eventually taken in by the ASPCA. But then, logic isn't necessarily PETA's strongest characteristic. This is the organization that once used pictures of the Holocaust to equate their animal rights message with the murder of 6 million Jews. The actual survivors of the Holocaust were understandably not pleased.
Ultimately, that's the sort of organization that PETA is. They aren't about change, or stepping out to make a difference, they're about calling out attention to themselves. They don't want results, they want people to feel bad. They want people to notice them.
It's certainly feasible that the decision to work with Michael Vick will completely blow up in the Humane Society's face. In his "60 Minutes" interview tonight, Vick seemed penitent and filled with loathing at his actions; he seemed transformed. If he's not, the Humane Society, the Eagles, Tony Dungy, and, I suppose, myself, will all be left with egg on our faces. But given the choice, I'd much rather be in the Humane Society's shoes right now. I'd rather believe that what's important is not your own self-righteousness but the work you put in to make something happen. I'd rather believe in grace. I'd rather believe in change. And I'd much rather believe in second chances.
So I hope this one works out.