Keeping Score

Prison to Pro Bowl: The Meaning of Michael Vick

He was once an imprisoned pariah. Now, after an MVP-caliber season, he's playing in the Pro Bowl. What lessons has Michael Vick taught us?

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John Biever / Sports Illustrated / Getty Images

Philadelphia Eagles QB Michael Vick

What was your Michael Vick experience this year? Did you get increasingly giddy as the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback — and convicted felon — mounted his remarkable comeback? Did your jaw drop right into the pretzel bowl as he broke records against the Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football or when he beat the New York Giants almost single-handedly? If so, did you then feel guilty about lauding a man who’d systematically tortured and murdered dogs — a man who had dispensed so much cruelty? But, then, did the guilt pass quickly because, well — did you just see that play?

Or were you disgusted, disappointed that the nation would celebrate such a person just because he throws an oblong ball better than most people alive?

(See pictures of rehabilitated attack dogs.)

Or did you maybe swell with pride, assured that cosmic justice was being done, because you’d always thought the demonization of Vick reeked of racism and double standards?

Although fans are excitedly awaiting the Feb. 6 Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers, Vick’s epic second act was the most electrifying story line of the 2010 NFL season. It was also the most polarizing. Does Vick’s story really say something about redemption, one of the more hackneyed concepts in American society? Does he expose the hypocrisy of an American culture that is sanctimonious about private indiscretions but then forgiving of a public winner? Or has Vick’s case always been an overblown media scandal that lays uncomfortably bare our national original sin: a deeply ingrained hostility towards the black man? How you feel about Michael Vick might say less about him and more about you.

Vick has behaved admirably since his release from prison in July 2009. He volunteers his time to warn others against repeating his mistakes. On the field, though he threw an ill-advised interception at the end of Philadelphia’s Jan. 9 playoff loss to the Packers, his season-long performance was, by all objective measures, stunning. He’s gone from prison to the Pro Bowl, which will be played Jan. 30 in Honolulu. His future employment, whether with the Eagles or another team willing to break the bank to sign him, will be a topic of off-season obsession. Vick is back atop America’s most popular, most lucrative spectator sport, a $9 billion business that has roared through the recession. No matter how he jumbles your emotions, his campaign is a comeback tale unmatched in American public life.

(See the top 10 sports moments of 2010.)

Just remember how far he had fallen. After the Atlanta Falcons selected Vick with the first pick of the 2001 draft, he instantly became a phenomenon. Football fans had never seen a quarterback zip through defenses like he did. Nike, one of his many corporate endorsers, created a pitch-perfect spot imagining a theme-park attraction called the Michael Vick Experience. He made the cover of the wildly popular Madden video game. In 2005, he signed a $130 million contract extension that made him the NFL’s highest-paid player.

But there had always been hints that Vick harbored a dark side. Critics wondered how much he really cared about the art of quarterbacking, content as he was to rely on his sheer athleticism to carry him past his distinct lack of technique. He was sulky and ill mannered. After one game, he gave the middle finger to Atlanta fans. Five years into his career, Vick had become a disappointment, a player people began to love to hate.

But that was not even the half of it. During this time, he was leading a double life, with activities far less mundane than the usual celebrity vices of drinking, drugging and philandering. No, Vick financed a dogfighting ring. He did this for about six years, from 2001 until the early part of 2007. Vick and a few associates purchased a property in rural Virginia that was staging ground for the fights, which could be worth thousands of dollars. The operation crossed state lines. The public outcry was vehement, the punishment severe: a 23-month sentence for the felony of participating in an interstate dogfighting conspiracy. Michael Vick was a pariah.

See the top 10 animal stories of 2010.

See the top 10 comebacks of 2010.

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