After eight weeks and an untimely rib injury, Micahel Vick is poised to return to the field this Sunday. If his initial five-game stint is any indication of what we can expect from him, it seems safe to proclaim that Michael Vick is “back.” More than that, he seems to be a much-improved version of the Falcons incarnation we saw four years ago.
What seems equally obvious at this point is that people will either love him or hate him, almost irrespective of how he performs on the field or comports himself in public. But, as a recent piece that appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News made clear, the shadow of his arrest and incarceration will likely hang over his head until he leaves the public spotlight.
To those who hold a grudge against Michael Vick and want to see him fail, I would humbly suggest that it’s time to move on. Beyond the typical he’s-paid-his-debt-to-society and everyone-deserves-a-second-chance arguments, I would point out that most of the outrage and vitriol directed at Vick has been largely misdirected and unfair.
Yes, Vick broke the law and, yes, what he did was profoundly stupid given how much he had to lose. The level of disgust that many people have for Vick goes far beyond these things, though. After all, professional football is full of people who break the law and athletes who are reckless with their talents and money is old as professional sports itself.
Obviously, what people get upset about is the cruel manner in which he treated the dogs he owned. America is a dog-loving country after all. Americans spend $41 billion a year on pet dogs and cats, and we do incredibly stupid things like put clothes on them and televise the ludicrous Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show live on ESPN, as though canine eugenics is somehow a sporting matter.
Though we love our dogs, the larger truth about America is that we are capable of great acts of animal cruelty. In fact, I would suspect that much of the sanctimony about Michael Vick stems from a basic insecurity and cognitive dissonance that we have knowing that, truth be told, most people are as bad as Mr. Vick, or worse, when it comes to how our actions hurt animals.
We are all cruel to animals in myriad ways. Leather does not grow on trees, most cosmetics were at some point tested on animals and most medications that we now use were the result of years of animal research and testing. None of these processes were pleasant for the animals, and in fact, many of them involve enormous pain and grisly deaths. Just because you do not yourself see them does not mean you are not complicit in these actions.
Sometimes I think back to a third-grade school field trip where we went to a feedlot and slaughterhouse. Even then, I felt deeply upset to see cows packed side by side, foot-deep in a foul soup of feces, urine and mud, only to be guillotined and ground and sliced up and sold to my carnivorous countrymen. A few days later, my mother made hamburgers for dinner.
If this is the point where you think I tell you that seeing the cruelty inflicted upon animals turned me into a conscientious vegetarian, you are quite wrong. I ate that hamburger, and it was delicious. Hypocrisy is a powerful thing that allows me to engage in innumerable delights, but my acknowledgment of it does at least prevent me from wagging my finger at others who share in my particular sin.
To be clear, I understand that my meat-loving dining habits cause incredible pain and premature death for the cows, chickens, turkeys and pigs whose lives are sacrificed so that I can have flesh with my lunch. If your retort is that people need to eat, but Michael Vick did not need to fight dogs, you are wrong. You can be healthy and strong on a vegetarian diet, but we eat meat because we like it; it makes us happy.
Moreover, given the ravages that the meat industry does to our ecology, there is an additional moral problem associated with carnivorousness that is unattached to dog-fighting. Yes, eating meat is morally worse than dog-fighting.
I only really fully understood the silliness of the coverage and treatment of Michael Vick when, during his trial, the media briefly became obsessed with the presence of so-called “rape stands” on the Vick property—their assumption seemed to be that dogs usually mate after a process of courtship ending with some kind of explicit consent. There are more than 150 recognized breeds of dog, each created by people through directed breeding programs. So, that cute Yorkie that you have? It may not have been produced with a breeding stand (the actual name for the device), but make no mistake that consent—if a dog is even capable of such a thing—played no part in the process.
In the end, there is nothing rational about this issue. People can eat veal every day, use cosmetics—the creation of which resulted in the blinding, scarring and death of hundreds of animals—wear fancy leather shoes and do a thousand daily activities that destroy the habitats of hundreds of animals, leaving them teetering on the edge of extinction, and then curse Michael Vick for killing dogs for sport.
The Vick case is not really about animal abuse per se, but rather about animal abuse coupled with our notions of class and race and how we view the activities of the other, the lesser and the marginal. Part of the unseemly aspect of it is deeply connected with our thoughts about the kind of people who engage in it. When cockfighting was the sport of aristocrats, there was no moral opprobrium attached to it; now that animal fighting is the domain of the poor, there is an ugly sneering at the people who do it that really goes beyond the act itself. It is a judgment about the kinds of people who do it.
If you think that the point of all of this is to convince you that Michael Vick was not cruel, you are wrong. What he did was ugly and genuinely grisly. Rather, I would point out that we are all cruel together, and there is not much that separates how our daily actions and those of Mr. Vick hurt and destroy animals. We do not need to eat meat or wear leather, but we do because it amuses us.
When so many of the things we do end up killing or harming animals, as a society we lack the moral ground upon which to castigate and condemn Michael Vick for his. And, I say this as someone who is as guilty as anyone.
I am Michael Vick—and so are you.