St. Louis // -- All the breathless debates about Michael Vick are missing the point. The bigger issue has nothing to do with whether he deserves the right of due process, or whether NFL commissioner Roger Goodell should suspend him, or whether Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank should enable him or give him tough love. It's not even about whether Nike should be launching another designer shoe with his name on it.
All of those are minor distractions from a much larger and far more significant issue. Here's the real brainteaser that we need to get a handle on:
How did someone like Michael Vick ever come to exist?
Are we really ready to have that conversation? Do we dare explore how a young man of such unique athletic gifts and such obvious on-field marketing appeal was allowed to turn into just another unfortunate mug shot and potential ruined life? How did that remarkable athlete get a $100 million contract with the Falcons, become Nike's poster boy, rake in endorsements, then find himself on the verge of blowing it all because of a tale that seems to come straight out of some hardcore gangster rap video?
We can save the "presumption of innocence" conversation for another time. As improbable as it might sound, technically, there's a possibility that Vick actually could own a house, rent it out to his relatives and be dumb or naive enough to not know that there was a dogfighting enterprise going on in the backyard. The U.S. Constitution provides Vick with the right and opportunity to prove that preposterous possibility to a jury of his peers.
I am far more interested in how it all came apart for Vick and why it keeps coming apart for too many black athletes in America. The ultimate symbols of black athletes in our society used to be men of substance and positive image. Men with social conscience and resolve, such as Jackie Robinson, Curt Flood and John Thompson, used to be our heroes. They carried a responsibility to portray themselves with a sense of dignity, pride and purpose. Even the cool, counterculture rebels, such as Muhammad Ali and Tommie Smith and John Carlos, stood for something more meaningful than a multimillion-dollar shoe deal.
But somewhere between Jackie Robinson and Michael Vick, things got all fouled up. "Street cred" became the anthem of the modern black athlete, this misguided notion that the only way to appeal to the young demographic of the sneaker-buying public was to adopt the negative attitudes of the thug life popularized by black hip-hop/gangster rappers. According to the 18-page federal indictment, Vick is accused of sponsoring the sort of gruesome dogfighting enterprise that is readily identified as a part of the dark side of that culture.
So that's how someone like Michael Vick came into existence. He got hijacked, and we all let it happen. We let it happen by passively condoning this mess. We did it when we turned Allen Iverson into a marketing figure and rejected someone like Grant Hill because he lacked "street cred." We allowed it to happen slowly, insidiously during the past 20 years. The problem is the hijacking of African-American culture by the hip-hop generation that has helped glorify every rotten, foul and disgusting racial stereotype it took generations to eradicate.
Bryan Burwell writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.