We Americans are a pretty soft touch, when it comes right down to it.
We are always willing to welcome back a prodigal son or daughter as long as they exhibit the appropriate level of humility and regret. No matter what some people have done that led to their fall from grace in the first place, we always seem willing, even eager, to embrace the lost lamb and raise them up to their former heights.
It’s the story of the comeback. It has played out countless times in our history — from politics, to the business world, and through our present day fascination with celebrities. Part of this dynamic is that Americans are a forgiving people, usually willing to let bygones be bygones. Another element to the comeback drama is that we love the underdog and enjoy seeing our erstwhile heroes pull themselves up by their bootstraps and climb back into the arena.
There are exceptions, as we might imagine. I doubt whether a chastened Benedict Arnold, prostrating himself before George Washington and asking forgiveness, would have received anything except the gallows rope. Arnold had been one of the biggest heroes of the American Revolution right up to the point where he colluded with the British to turn over West Point.
Then there was the strange case of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a huge silent movie star who was charged with manslaughter in 1921 as a result of the death of a young girl in his hotel room. Although found innocent of the crime after three trials, Arbuckle’s career was ruined. The public never got over the lurid stories told in the press about what happened that night.
And yet, the public had no trouble forgiving Ingrid Bergman for committing the shocking sin of having a baby out of wedlock in 1949 with another man while still married to her husband. Denounced on the floor of the Senate as Hollywood’s “apostle of degradation,” Bergman made a spectacular comeback, winning an Oscar in 1956 for her role as the maybe-maybe not Romanov princess in Anastasia.
However, nowhere does the comeback resonate so deeply with us as it does in the world of sport. Perhaps because athletics lends itself so well to drama and pathos, our emotions are already primed to be manipulated by the story that always plays out the same way — success followed by some tragic downfall (sometimes injury or illness), the slow process of recovery, and a blaze of glory ending as the star athlete once again mounts the Olympian heights, returning to his rightful place in our hearts and in his sport.
Storybook stuff, to be sure. But what happens if it isn’t injury that sets back the hero, but a personal transgression or betrayal? Seven players for the Chicago White Sox took money from a pair of two-bit gamblers in the 1919 World Series to throw the contest. Although acquitted at trial, Major League Baseball banned the players for life — a judgment that many, but not all fans agree with to this day.
There’s the tragic case of Art Schlichter, a former college star quarterback for Ohio State whose gambling addiction was so bad, he estimates he stole more than $1.5 million over the years to feed it. A bust in the pros, once it was revealed he had a gambling addiction fans rallied to his support. But he was in denial about his problem and kept blowing the many “second chances” he received from various teams in the U.S. and Canada. Eventually, even the fans abandoned him.
This brings us to Michael Vick, former starting quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, cruel torturer of helpless animals, and sometime promoter of dogfights. Vick personifies the modern comeback story in sports. His horrific acts of barbaric cruelty visited upon dogs in his kennel, as well as his part ownership of a statewide ring of dogfighting venues, led to his conviction in 2007 on several counts of participating in illegal dogfighting activities and supplying money for the gambling operation. He was sentenced to 23 months and was released in May of this year.
After his arrest, Vick held what has become the obligatory mea culpa news conference for pro athletes who have been caught up in legal trouble. He apologized to everyone and promised to reform. A few months later while out on bail, he failed a drug test for marijuana, which even his supporters were forced to admit was a strange way to reform himself. Released by his team, he finds himself currently without an NFL home — although that is expected to change in the next few weeks.