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.
Michael Vick is going to get a second chance. Like almost all the 408 other NFL players who have been arrested on felony charges since 2000, the league is granting him the opportunity to return to stardom — despite committing crimes relating to gambling (Vick insists he never bet on the dog fights) that some believe should have disqualified him from ever lacing up a pair of spikes again. At one time, prosecutors were discussing the possibility of bringing charges under the organized crime statute known as RICO — a turn of events that would have meant the end of his career since he would have been sentenced to at least 25 years. In that way, Vick dodged a bullet, as he did when several similar state charges against him were plea bargained down to three years probation.
None of us are granted the insight to look into a man’s soul and discover if he truly is remorseful and willing to change his ways. All we can do is judge someone based on our ability to interpret a person’s attitude toward their transgression and how they carry themselves from that point on.
Michael Vick appears to have made many of the right moves. He has paid his debt to society and given more than a million dollars to fund the care and rehabilitation of some of the dogs he so barbarically used. He has even agreed to Commissioner Roger Goodell’s suggestion that former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy “mentor” the 29-year-old man to make sure he makes the right “decisions.”
But despite our longing to welcome back tarnished heroes with open arms, Vick’s crimes may be a bridge too far for the very image-conscious NFL. Despite Goodell’s conditional reinstatement of Vick, there has been very little interest shown by the 29 NFL teams in signing him, with many completely ruling out the possibility. It seems that there are indeed some things that are unforgivable — or, at least in the NFL, unmarketable.
Besides that, many NFL teams are frightened of signing Vick and enduring the almost certain negative reaction of many fans and the sporting press. Weighed in the balance against the fact that he has been two years out of football, is in questionable shape, and would be a difficult fit because of his style in many NFL offenses, it appears that very few teams are even discussing him.
But should it be this way? Most of the 408 NFL players who have been arrested on felony charges since 2000 didn’t experience this kind of resistance. Many were welcomed back to their teams with open arms.
This may be due to the fact that 32 percent of those felonies were DUIs, a crime to which the league gives a slap on the wrist. But what about the 17 percent of those felonies that were the result of violence against women? Or the 21 percent that were for fighting or disorderly conduct? Suspending these players for a couple of games hardly sends the message that the league is concerned about players obeying the law and not acting as if they are above it.
That’s why this current imbroglio over Vick smacks of hypocrisy. We rightly cringe when recalling Michael Vick’s crimes. But he has served his time, made his restitution, and appears at this juncture to be on the straight and narrow. Contrast that with the sometimes serial transgressions of a Pacman Jones, who always ends up getting another chance no matter what he does. As long as there is little or no consistency in the application of punishment in the NFL, the conga line of players charged with felonies will continue to bedevil the game.
Michael Vick has a world of talent and could probably help a good half-dozen teams, although not necessarily at quarterback. His speed and athleticism lends itself to kick returning, or perhaps the position of wide receiver.
But first some team will have to take a flyer and sign him to a contract. And at the moment, that appears not to be in the cards.