Baseball, basketball and football may be the national pastimes, but probing the lives of our celebrities - particularly athletes and passing judgment is our national obsession.
Given the behavior of people like Michael Vick, it’s just too tempting. Here’s a guy who went from being the No. 1 NFL draft pick in 2001 to, six years later, a felony plea and almost certainly prison for his role in a dog-fighting operation called Bad Newz Kennels.
The details of this enterprise are revolting. Reading the 18-page indictment one can learn about the treadmills used to train dogs for fighting, the buried car axles they are chained to, the “rape stand” for breeding female dogs too aggressive to approach. Authorities found graves - likely of dogs that didn’t perform well, and so were drowned, electrocuted or body slammed to the ground until they were dead.
Michael Vick allegedly financed this cruelty and may have participated in it as well.
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As soon as the gory details were exposed and digested, the pat explanations followed: Vick is just a thug. You can take the kid out of the ’hood but not the ’hood out of the kid. His posse of friends, stuck in the rough streets of their youth, pulled him down. Vick is just another black athlete who shuns the white establishment that controls professional sports, instead clinging to the past, a way of life sprinkled with marijuana blunts and a reckless disregard for one’s own future.
Sorry, but no matter how compelling it may be to invoke such oversimplified beliefs about race, class and the impact of the celebrity cult status on minorities, it doesn’t illuminate the case of Michael Vick.
True, he did grow up poor, with more day-to-day support from his mother and grandmother than from his father. And football became his ticket out of poverty. It was a drug charge - marijuana - of a close associate and longtime friend that led authorities to the Vick property and the Bad Newz Kennels.
Vick also seems not to have been equal to the responsibilities of celebrity and wealth. He seemingly had it all going for him - a Nike shoe named after him, one of the most lucrative contracts in the NFL, swarms of loyal fans - and yet he callously threw it away.
Can any of us peer into the soul of a man like that? Is Vick’s fall really any easier to unravel than, say, the banker from a middle class family who turns to gambling? A woman who scrabbles her way to two Ivy League degrees, lands the great job, then blows it all by slothful attendance at work, eventually getting fired? I’ve known these people.
Their demons were complex and hard to name - as, perhaps, are Vick’s.
Simply noting that someone grew up poor, of a particular race, cannot completely explain the unraveling that people do to themselves.
Yet with Vick we see similar sort of urge to moralize about black hip-hop culture that followed Don Imus’ slur against black women. At some point, responsibility for Imus’ remark was deflected back to various supposed pathologies of young black men. With Vick, you hear people asserting that dog fighting is simply a part of black street creed, an urban thing, as if that alone explains why he got involved with it.
But dog fighting has been around for a long time. Yes, it is part of black urban culture. And Latin culture. And poor white culture.
Ever see the movie “Amores Perros”? The Mexican award-winning film is rife with violent, gory dog-fighting scenes.
Many of the fights Vick is accused of helping stage netted about $5,000 for the purse. Vick’s contract with the Atlanta Falcons, now in jeopardy, was for $130 million. (Millions more in product endorsements are as good as gone.) A multimillion paycheck cannot shield you from yourself. A lot of people who follow the American dream and “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” still find something is ultimately missing and derail. It’s as if, after the arduous process of earning a new status, they’re not convinced they deserve it.
Michael Vick’s self-destruction may be explained by the distance between the man he saw in the mirror and his No. 7 jersey persona. At some level Vick is very pleased with himself. He’s satisfied the portion of his psyche that led him down this path. But as long as we keep looking at Vick and shake, shake our collective heads, dismissing it all to race and class, we will miss ever understanding more about the deeper demons that people wrestle with.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413 firstname.lastname@example.org .