. . . Saturday December 15, 2007

Vegetarians for Vick

In a handwritten letter requesting leniency from the judge in his case, Michael Vick included the sentiment: “I’m not the bad person or the beast I’ve been made out to be.”

I’ll leave it to others to debate whether Michael Vick has been treated fairly by the justice system (comparing his to other crimes, more or less serious, etc.). I will also skip the obvious hypocrisy of a society that happily shops supermarket aisles lined with the fruits of the killing of about 10 billion animals a year (not to mention the 3,000 cows who supply their hides for the 22,000 footballs used by the NFL each year). Similarly, I will deter my keyboard from curiosity of a media (driven in this case by public demand) that – when measured by airtime – nestles dog abuse somewhere between weather teasers and mass genocide.

Dog fighting is repulsive, sure. I am a vegetarian, lefty, San Franciscan. My relationship with my cats borders on the unholy. As a child, I regularly obsessed (both in and out of therapists’ offices) about the following philosophical question: How can we truly know that a head of lettuce doesn’t feel pain when we bite into it? So it doesn’t take too many dog electrocutions to convince me that Vick is a beast.

What I wonder is whether Vick has been overly demonized by an NFL looking to clean up its act under the guidance of a new commissioner.

The NFL glorifies brutality and violence. The aggressiveness demanded of players often spills, tangentially or directly, over to violent crimes. Beyond this, it is a league with a set of ethics all its own. Many have argued that one of the challenges for a guy like Michael Vick is to detach himself from “the street” and the bad influences of past acquaintances and accept his casting into the role of corporate gladiator, err, role model.

That, however, is the opposite of the message that’s embraced in NFL locker rooms where an ‘us against the world’ sentiment reigns supreme. Loyalty to one’s teammates – often defined as a willingness to dish out and absorb brutal violence – is at the core of the NFL ethical compass.

One of most storied moments in Brett Favre’s much-storied career was a 2003 game against the Raiders in which he played only a day after his father’s death. Can a league that celebrates players who return to the field of battle only days after a death in the family somehow shoehorn in an ethic related to dumping your childhood friends?

Is Michael Vick a beast? It’s a fair question, but the answer needs to come only after a bit of self-reflection (especially by the NFL and those of us addicted to the aspects of the game that could just as easily turn our stomachs).

Concentration is important!