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?

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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.

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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.

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The Road Back

Prison was a predictable hell, according to Vick. “There are too many times in prison when you’re at a low,” he says. “Seeing my kids walk out each and every weekend and not being able to walk out with them — that was probably the toughest thing I had to deal with. It was horrible.” So were his future prospects. In 2009, former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, a devout Christian who has dedicated his postcoaching career to prison ministry, met Vick in Leavenworth. Dungy, who often ministers to murderers, received unprecedented backlash for mentoring Vick. “When you’re involved in prison ministry, people in general say, ‘Oh, that’s great — it’s good you go into those prisons and try to give these guys hope. Keep doing that,” he says. “But then on this one, it was, ‘How can you go see this guy after what he’d done? We’re not going to support your charities anymore.’ It was bizarre.”

After Vick was released from prison in July 2009, it wasn’t clear whether NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who has built a reputation for harsh discipline, would let him back into the league. Goodell decided to reinstate Vick under a zero-tolerance policy. While he was considering Vick’s case, Goodell recalls meeting with Vick and his camp. A Vick associate started to blame bad influences for the transgressions. “Michael stopped him and said, ‘No, it was me,’ ” Goodell says. “He didn’t in any way try to push the idea that this was caused by somebody else. I thought that was impressive.”

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Eagles coach Andy Reid, whose two sons had done jail time for drug-related offenses, pushed to sign Vick. Skeptical Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, who has two dogs, including one he had rescued from abuse, grilled Vick. “I tried really hard to read his eyes and get past the words,” Lurie says. “There was a sort of depth, an intensity. This wasn’t some sort of speech.” Vick carried an intense work ethic onto the field. He picked Dungy’s brain about how Peyton Manning, his star with the Colts, prepared for games. He worked out, fine-tuned his throwing motion and, for the first time, became a true quarterback.

What Vick Says About America

With a football in his hands, Vick creates a certain kind of hysteria. That fervor follows him off the field. Whereas Vick was once one of the most demonized people in the country, now he’s among the most divisive. In late December, President Obama called Lurie to praise him for trying to power the team’s stadium with alternative energy. He also slipped him a compliment for giving Vick another shot. Animal-rights activists erupted. Fox pundit Tucker Carlson objected to Obama’s sentiment, going so far as to say on the air that Vick “should have been executed” for his role in the dogfighting.

Vick’s resurrection has been instructive on many levels. First, America’s connection with its dogs is far from trite. Second, when talking about the athletic achievements of young black men in this country, you can never sweep away race. Just spend some time in the African-American enclaves of Philadelphia, where people wish the problems plaguing their neighborhoods received a slither of the outrage accompanying a black man who hurt dogs. “We see all these murders, and you’re really going to go on about dead dogs?” says Craig Styles, 40, a barber at the As-Salaamu-Alaikum shop in North Philly. “And he already did his time? Let it the f___ go.”

Further, Vick exposes the hypocrisy of our criminal-justice debate. In a time of dangerously strapped public budgets, everyone agrees that recidivism is too costly. So here comes a man who served his time, secured himself a job — a very specialized and lucrative one, yes, but a job nonetheless — and by all accounts is doing community-service work beyond what his sentence required. He’s an example of how the system should work. Still, many despise his presence on the field.

“I can’t satisfy everyone,” Vick says. “Only the people who are willing to listen, only the people who have sincerity in their heart, only the people who are real, are genuine, who understand the big picture.”

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Vick’s saga offers real lessons about redemption. During the 2009 season, Vick was also a solid citizen — but a backup quarterback who did little to impress football fans. Few were glorifying his postprison life when he was sitting on the sidelines. He was still Michael Vick, the despicable dogfighter. So what, exclaims the skeptic: Now we’re going to sing his praises and give his off-field message to America’s youth — don’t waste your God-given talent; treat animals with respect — extra attention because he played well? We’re really going to fall into that trap again? Haven’t we learned from Tiger Woods and so many other athletes that mistaking on-field excellence for off-field character is a perilous pastime? “Forgiving him because he’s excellent at football is actually a barbaric notion,” says John Mark Reynolds, a philosophy professor at Biola University, an Evangelical college in Southern California.

That’s a harsh but fair sentiment — on the surface. A deeper look into Vick’s second chance reveals a more upbeat view. Redemption can be defined as atonement for guilt. Vick was guilty of wasting his gifts; such squandering arguably led to his horrible acts. His exploits on the field are not in and of themselves redeeming. It’s how he achieved them that is. Vick exited prison and worked harder than ever, transforming himself into a better quarterback than he was before his punishment. No matter what you think of Vick personally, that’s an act of atonement.

Yes, America has always been too obsessed with sports and always will be. No one should forgive (or choose not to forgive) Vick for animal murder based on his performance on the field. All opinions of his dogfighting are personal and perfectly legitimate. You can still hate Michael Vick. But even if you do, you can say this guilt-free: by becoming a star for the Philadelphia Eagles, Michael Vick, in a real sense, has been redeemed.

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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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