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

More Good than Harm

Within the animal-rights community, however, any such talk of Vick’s turnaround seems premature. Remember, Vick is not someone who kicked a dog in frustration or just casually cheered on his bets while the dogs bit one another’s faces. In The Lost Dogs, a recent book that profiles the pit bulls rescued from Vick’s operation, Sports Illustrated senior editor Jim Gorant writes of the operation’s killing methods: “[Vick and his then friend Quanis Phillips] swung the dog over their head like a jump rope, then slammed it to the ground. The first impact didn’t kill it. So, Phillips and Vick slammed it again. The two men kept at it, alternating back and forth, pounding the creature against the ground until, at last, the little red dog was dead.”

Vick acknowledges there is no excuse for his actions, but he thinks redemption is possible. “There’s no way of making it right,” Vick says. “But the one thing I can do is help more animals than I hurt.” Over the past 15 months, Vick has partnered with the Humane Society of the United States on its antidogfighting efforts. About twice a month he ventures into a school or community center to urge kids to swear off the grisly pastime, which animal-rights groups agree is still thriving in the back alleys of many poor, mostly African-American communities. “Michael asks for opportunities to do things,” says Michael Nutter, the mayor of Philadelphia. “He’s not a guy you have to go chasing after.” Vick’s presence at these sessions can be powerful. For example, Morgon Dukes, 17, used to bet on dogfights in the back alleys of his impoverished Chicago neighborhood, where people need a quick buck. When Vick got caught and went to prison, the fighting became less frequent. And when he actually flew to Chicago to talk to Dukes and other neighborhood kids at a community center, the fights stopped. “This was coming from Michael Vick, our hero,” Dukes says. “We felt remorse. We felt sorry.”

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Through his connection to Dukes alone, Vick may have rescued dozens of dogs, if not more. Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, says annual dogfighting arrests and prosecutions have doubled since Vick’s 2007 conviction. “There is no question that the Vick case has been transformative,” he says.

But other experts question this positive assessment of Vick’s impact. Are dogfighting arrests up because Vick helped create awareness of the problem, leading more people to report it? Or have the numbers spiked because more people are participating, since they saw a star quarterback do it and get his life back? Did Vick somehow made it cool? “There’s really no way of knowing for sure,” says Sue Cosby, CEO of the Pennsylvania SPCA.

Nor is there any way of knowing whether Vick will continue to walk the path of righteousness, for he has already demonstrated lapses in judgment. Last summer, Vick attended a 30th-birthday party thrown in his honor at a Virginia Beach club. He and his fiancée arrived at 12:45 a.m. About 400 people were there. After Vick left, someone shot Quanis Phillips, one of his codefendants in the dogfighting case, in the leg.

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Though he was cleared of any legal wrongdoing, Vick knew he had screwed up. “You can’t go talk to a group of kids and say, ‘Do the right things, make the right decisions, use good judgment,’ and then you go out and there’s a shooting at the nightclub,” Vick tells TIME. “You don’t want to do anything to contradict yourself. So there’s pressure in that area. It’s a good pressure, because it keeps me in line.”

It’s easy to picture a scenario, say, two years from now, in which Vick is no longer frequenting Humane Society events or speaking with passion about dogfighting. So will Vick pledge his remaining days to the antifighting cause? He won’t go that far, but he insists he’ll stay dedicated. “I’ll be doing this for a long, long time,” Vick says. “As long as they allow me to be part of their movement, then I’ll continue to do it.” You may never forget Vick’s crimes or forgive him. But you can still put him in a broader context. He spent more time in prison than many people do for abuse of humans. Appreciate his productivity, because that’s what we ultimately want, and need, from our offenders.

— With reporting by Eric Dodds

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