22 August 2009

Decision to Reinstate Michael Vick is the Right One

At the risk of offending my PETA friends, I’m writing to defend the NFL’s decision to reinstate Michael Vick. With all the banter on my Facebook pages about it these days, you would think he was being considered for a seat on the US Supreme Court. It’s football, people.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a Michael Vick fan. I find his actions reprehensible. But, he served his time. He paid his debt to society and I don’t see what’s wrong with him returning to the position he held before he was sentenced – a quarterback in the NFL. As grandiose as we make professional sports, it’s still a job. To deny him the opportunity seems like double jeopardy.

Plus, all the court-ordered charity work on behalf of animal causes will have greater impact if he's on a national stage (instead of washing cars in Blacksburg), regardless of whether his remorse is sincere.

Generally speaking, I think everyone deserves a second chance, especially when it comes to released convicts and employment. The system has a way of keeping the “undesirables” down and out. I don’t think I’ve worked for a company in 20 years that would consider hiring anyone with a felony conviction on their record, regardless of the circumstances or whether the potential candidate was rehabilitated. Personally, I’d rather have former inmates gainfully employed than back on the streets, desperate and destitute. But that’s a topic for another day.

Most of the objections regarding Vick I’ve heard seem to be centered on him not being a suitable role-model for the young people who idolize NFL quarterbacks. And that’s the bigger issue. There’s nothing about being a star athlete that qualifies one for being a good role-model, in the first place. It would be nice if they all were. And every now and then, one emerges. But that’s the exception. Just because you can throw strikes or form tackle hard or dunk better than most, doesn’t make you a decent person. I think there are lessons children can learn from any successful athlete in terms of hard work and determination, but when it comes to behavior off the field (and, in many cases, even on the field), I have no interest in elevating athletes to the important stature of role model for my children.

If he were applying for a position running Father Flanagan’s Boys Town in Nebraska, one would have to consider Michael Vick’s poor judgment and recent conviction as strikes against him. But he’s not. He’s applying to be Donavon McNabb’s back-up, a job that has absolutely nothing to do with being a role model.

I remember Charles Barkley causing a stir several years ago when he insisted that he wasn’t anybody’s role model and shouldn’t be considered one. As it turns out, Sir Charles is a decent guy and probably a much better role model than most pro athletes these days. But his point is right on. Just when you think you want your boy to grow up and be just like Michael Phelps, there he goes smoking dope from a bong for all the world to see.

As long as our young folks are looking to celebrities, including professional athletes, as role models, we’re in trouble.

Instead, we need to ensure that our children are surrounded by positive adult influences: teachers, aunts and uncles, mentors, ministers, people in the community who’ve overcome obstacles to succeed… Surely, if there are enough “real” people in our children’s lives serving in that capacity, celebrities should have less influence, which is a good thing.

Still, there are some lessons to be learned by our children in all of this: lessons about compassion, humility, forgiveness. And we can use Vick to show kids that anyone can change if you learn your lesson or that no matter how big you are in society's eyes you too can spend two years behind bars if you break the rules. Don’t squander teachable moments, even if it’s not the lesson you were hoping to teach.

The bottom line is that the NFL is a business whose primary purpose is to make money, like all businesses. Commissioner Roger Goodell made a business decision. There are certainly risks involved in re-instating Vick. Ad revenue could be lost; fan support among certain demographics may dwindle. But Goodell weighed the pros and cons and decided that it was worth the risk to have Vick in the league (same for the Eagles who signed him). Goodell is no dummy. There’s no such thing as bad “buzz” this time of year when the season is ramping up to kickoff. I would be surprised if Goodell (and the Eagles) aren’t salivating at the new-found intrigue the controversy is creating.

But, because the NFL is a consumer-driven business, the casual fan certainly has a role to play. Don’t feel comfortable with Vick in the league? Don’t watch games or buy NFL merchandise.

The truth of the matter is that the NFL and all other professional sports leagues are comprised of a combination of saints and thugs and everything in between – just like the rest of society. I’m just not sure where one would start drawing the line when it comes to morality.

My final point: If you live long enough (which I have) and you can be honest with yourself (which I'm trying), it gets easier to embrace this concept: "Who Am I to Judge?" Forgiveness is the noblest virtue. Give the guy a chance.