The Conversation: Michael Vick and the application of our morals

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Every so often here at the Toy Department, two Baltimore Sun staffers will engage in a segment we like to call The Conversation, where they'll swap e-mails with one another and debate something that is in the news. Today, Kevin Van Valkenburg and Chris Korman wonder whether it's fair to bring up Michael Vick's past repeatedly as he once again emerges as one of the top quarterbacks in the game.


In March of 2009, when Michael Vick was planning his return to the NFL after spending two years in prison, the Toy Department asked a serious question: In an alternate universe where the team didn't draft Joe Flacco, would Ravens fans be open to having Vick as their quarterback?

I was thinking about that blog entry as Vick shredded the Redskins defense Monday night, a performance that was both jaw-dropping and a little scary for how dominant it was. No matter what you think of him, he truly is one of the best athletes in the history of the NFL. To paraphrase Bobby Jones when asked once about Jack Nicklaus, he's playing a game with which I am unfamiliar.

The comments on that initial post were actually pretty evenly divided. A lot of Ravens fans said they'd stop watching the team immediately if Vick suited up in purple, while an equal number acknowledged he was too dynamic of a talent to not take a chance on. They pointed out that Vick had paid his debt to society, and his crimes, while horrific, were no worse than those crimes committed by numerous players still in the league. There were even a few Ravens fans wondering how anyone who cheered for Ray Lewis and Jamal Lewis could pretend they were above cheering for Vick. As far as Internet debates go, it was actually pretty evenly divided.


I wonder what that debate would be like these days? Would it be any less emotional? Vick's rise and fall and rise may go down as one of the strangest stories in the history of American sports before it's over. And part of what makes it so remarkable is that he's somehow a better player now than he was prior to going to prison. A little humility, a little more focus, some better coaching and fewer distractions have turned him into a player who is almost impossible to defend.

But in a sense, Vick will always represent one of the most interesting questions in sports: Should we care what kind of person an athlete is away from the field? Like most kids who were raised in Montana, I had a dog growing up. His name was Licorice. He was a mutt, but he was an awesome dog. I forced him to sleep in the top bunk of my bed with me for years, mostly because I thought he'd prefer it to a dog bed, but also because I couldn't bear to be away from him for any longer than I had to be. I understand the emotional connection people have with their pets. Some people care about their dogs more than they care about the people in their lives, because their dogs have shown more loyalty and kindness than people ever could.

That said, I love watching Vick play football. I can't deny that. If the Eagles played the Steelers in the Super Bowl, I'd have no problem rooting for Vick and the Eagles because I find Ben Roethlisberger to be more loathsome, and yet less repentant for what he was accused of doing.

But as a Pennsylvania boy, I turn it back to you. How do we decide when and where to apply our moral compass to athletes? When they're fun to watch? When they wear the colors of a team we support?


Montana Man,

When Vick signed, I was shocked. Not because the Eagles had taken that risk -- though it did seem like something Andy Reid and all of the other decision-makers in Philadelphia would typically not even consider -- but because my reaction, even after years of working as a journalist, was that of a fan. I immediately told people that I thought it was so forward thinking for the Eagles to offer him a second chance. And, I explained, I thought that what he'd done, while certainly heinous, did not set him apart from much of the rest of the league. He took part in a organized, big-money, widespread dog-fighting ring and got caught, meaning he had to go through trial and see the details become public. The facts came out, and everybody had their shot. That hasn't been the case with a lot of guys.

But knowing so many details of what had happened also made me know that my original feeling should have been disgust and disappointment. Vick took advantage of animals that didn't know better, for sport. There's no excusing that.

Whatever existential conflict I was having over his signing and my reaction to it didn't last long, though. Because it didn't seem to mean too much at the time. The Eagles had both a quarterback for then -- Donovan McNabb -- and a quarterback for the future -- Kevin Kolb -- and it seemed like Vick would just run a few Wildcat plays here or there.

That is, of course, exactly how it happened. Reid sprinkled Vick in periodically, and while his athleticism was still there, it was clear that he'd lost his feel for the game. Playing infrequently, he never looked comfortable and it was easy to envision a situation in which his years away prevented him from ever building on the promise he showed as a young quarterback.

Heading into this year, Vick became a bit more important for the Eagles after the trade of McNabb. But so much of the the coverage coming from Eagles training camp focused on Kolb's ascension that I never for a second stopped to consider that Vick might have improved enough to deserve to start. (Truthfully, I didn't follow all of the coverage closely, but I wonder now whether Vick was playing like this in August and whether the organization felt it had to stand behind Kolb no matter what.)

But here we are now, and what Vick is doing is actually quite confounding. We've known for a while that no quarterback has ever been as adept a runner, but now Vick is passing as well as McNabb did on his best days. He's making smart decisions, too, and has become a leader on a young offense. In short, he's doing the things that people didn't seem to think he did well playing for Atlanta.

So let me turn it back over to you. How did this happen? Better coaching? A more mature approach to the game by a man who has been humbled?

And, yes, I realize I haven't answered the Big Question here concerning morals and arbitrary application of them, but I've decided that there are parts of this I need to discuss more before I can be sure what I think.



I suppose I could make a joke about Paul Crewe (or Art Schlichter) giving Vick quarterback tips while he was in prison, but I'm wondering if the answer isn't as simple as you make it. For the first time in Vick's athletic career, maybe he realized his coaches could actually help him. Instead of nodding his head and ignoring them, then going out and doing his thing, he figured out if he went through his progressions and tightened up his throwing motion, he could be the most dangerous quarterback in the league.

One of the most interesting character traits of a professional athlete, at least to me, is that arrogance is a job requirement. But too much arrogance can be a hindrance. Finding that perfect equilibrium between the two is something a lot of professional athletes struggle with. The best players, almost from the time they learn to throw and catch, have an ingrained belief in themselves. But if they believe it too much, they can't humble themselves enough to correct their problems. Maybe time and experience would have humbled Vick eventually, and he would have realized his potential without going to prison, but I also wonder if simplifying his life hasn't helped as well. Instead of dealing everyday with 25 different jokers asking for money or permission to expand the Bad Newz Kennel dog fighting operation, he can just focus on his wife, his kids, and his career.

But let's get back to the moral dilemma of cheering for him. By asking this question, do we run the risk of trying to manufacture outrage? I suspect we'll be accused of it by someone. In a sense, even debating Vick is a lose-lose. Some people will never forgive him, and feel the dog fighting stuff should be brought up every time he takes the field. Other people claim they're so sick of hearing about it, and they only want to think about him in the context of how good he is at football.

Although the situations are different, we deal with this whenever we write about Donte' Stallworth. When we mention that he ran down a pedestrian and that person died, and that he was suspended from the NFL for a year, people consistently leave angry comments on our stories saying they don't want to hear about what happened anymore. And yet, a person died. Is it really too much of a burden to bear to have to be reminded about what happened every time Stallworth is written about? In some sense, that's the absolute least he should have to deal with in exchange for the privilege of playing in the NFL again.

Vick has been so dynamic this year, he'll probably be able to name his price as a free agent next season. What will the reaction be when someone hands him $40 million?



Well, if the Eagles end up giving him the contract it will probably be met with jubilation in Philly. Those people, as far as I can tell, have been won over.

So here's my answer to the looming question here: I think we should both try to forgive Vick and mention what he did every chance we get. So what I'm saying is: piss off both sides. That's probably about the only way to be these days, anyway.

Vick did serve his time. He does appear to have learned his lesson. So he deserves a chance to be good again. Maybe constantly referencing his criminal past will hinder that, but, as you note, he's a fairly privileged individual right now. His continuing payment to society, I think, should be facing up to what happened and shouldering the burden of trying to prevent it from happening again. I'm assuming most of the country never imagined that dog fighting was as widespread and lucrative as they found out it was from the Vick situation. And it's still that way, in all the places a lot of people don't want to look. It's part of a street culture that lures those who've been left behind, and with the economy the way it is now there's more of them than ever before. If we have to annoy people every Sunday for this fact to seep in, then so be it. Same goes with Stallworth, and certainly with Roethlisberger, about whom I have shared my opinion without reserve.

Ultimately, there are root causes here and they need to be addressed. It makes more sense to have an honest discussion of how Michael Vick got to a point where he thought doing that would be OK -- or why Stallworth wouldn't use some of his millions for a cab, or how Big Ben came to believe the world was his to ravage as he pleases -- than it does to repeatedly vilify these people. Vick, Stallworth, and Roethlisberger should be held accountable for their own actions, but we've got to plunge into the nuance of these things a bit more if we're going to fix them.

As you note, the Vick story has the potential to be one of the most riveting we've seen in a long time. But we're not covering it honestly if we fail to bring up dog fighting or, worse, pretend that  his reformation has somehow rendered him flawless.


Obviously there are people who have strong opinions on this either way, and I'm hoping they offer thoughts now.