Vick deserves chance to make it right

December 17, 2010

Denying outsiders access to mainstream culture is an American tradition as sacred as barbecue and fireworks on the Fourth of July.

So it is no surprise that Michael Vick’s desire to own a pet dog has sparked controversy and debate.

The right to assimilate has never been inalienable in this country.

Like arrogant, immature frat boys and sorority girls, we choose whom we allow into the mainstream based on appearance, popularity, lineage, wealth and, most important, whether the benefits of acceptance outweigh the rewards of denial.

There’s no risk in standing against Mike Vick, a parolee convicted of despicable cruelty to defenseless dogs, an outrageously blessed professional athlete who tossed away a $100 million contract and his freedom because he rejected the mainstream in favor of hip-’hood rebellion.

Vick is an unsympathetic ex-con. He had it all and blew it. God-given talent granted him the luxury of stepping out of prison and into a seven-figure-a-year, nationally televised work-release program.

I get it. It’s easy to dislike Michael Vick, easy to believe his road to redemption is yellow bricked rather than an arduous green mile. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking there’s something courageous in vilifying Vick for his dogfighting past and denying him the opportunity to write an uplifting future.

Trust me, I get it. I’m a cynic by nature. And, as an attention-seeking sports-media personality for closing in on two decades, I know a great deal about sticking my finger in the air and figuring out what line of simple-minded self-righteousness the public will eat up.

Bashing a convicted dogfighter falls somewhere between blasting John Wall for dancing in pregame introductions (bogus) and shredding Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly for his role in the death of Declan Sullivan (legitimate).

The Vick crucifixion smells like John Wall.

The real danger is in supporting Vick’s attempt to move into the mainstream. There’s a good chance those of us who do will live to regret it. Jailhouse religion usually lasts only a year or two. And it almost never withstands a new multimillion-dollar contract and widespread public adulation.

Once busted, convicted and punished, a true hustler finds a new hustle.

Is Vick hustling us with his talk of wanting a pet dog for his family? Is he playing a role to ensure a new contract, keep the Pro Bowl votes rolling and rebuild his brand?

Maybe. But I can’t see the public good in denying him the opportunity to change.

Vick’s fair-minded dog critics realize he is very unlikely to brutalize animals again. The risk is too great. They want the Philadelphia quarterback locked out of the mainstream because they see his mistreatment of dogs as a sign of a brutal soul. Vick’s brutality, they believe, will manifest itself in other ways.

There is absolute truth in their position.

There also is truth in this: The rehabilitation of Vick’s soul must start somewhere, and there is no better place to begin than with normalizing his appreciation and respect for dogs.

A reader tweeted me Thursday analogizing Vick’s right to own a pet dog to allowing a child molester to adopt kids. It’s a ridiculous comparison. As far as I know, there is no segment of American society that believes child molestation is acceptable. There are significant segments of American society where dogfighting is as acceptable as gambling or recreational drug use.

As difficult as it may be for some dog owners to fathom, Vick didn’t leave the womb looking for a place to fight dogs. The poor, southern culture he grew up in taught him it was an acceptable form of entertainment and competition.

Why not let him learn/move into a new culture? Why not let him evolve?

If he fails, he’ll suffer harsh consequences. If he succeeds and transitions, he’ll serve as an important symbol of hope and redemption. If the goal is to educate people about the evils of dogfighting, if the goal is to move more people into the mainstream, Michael Vick is the perfect spokesperson.

He’s been punished enough. His path to recovery may be paved with gold, but the obstacles are extreme. He’s still cursed with sycophants who swear to him he’s a victim of racism and that he did no wrong. He’s still a relatively young man who is cursed with too many friends and family members dependent on him for their economic survival.

There are well-intentioned, clueless forces pushing Vick the wrong direction every day. The Vick haters empower those forces.

I can think of few men more in need of man’s best friend than Michael Vick.