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Michael Vick’s Long, Strange Detour
Posted on Sep 27, 2009
By T.L. Caswell
Was the pleasure I had, or hoped to have, from the martial arts fighting, the boxing, the bullfight, the duck hunt, that much different from what was experienced by Michael Vick and his guests at the Bad Newz Kennels festivities? Though there was a legal difference, and a difference in degree, was there a difference in principle? The question was perplexing, and it rested heavily on me.
Remember those five points of “neutralization,” or justification, from the 1957 sociological study? Let me try them on for size in regard to boxing, and attach some thoughts I’ve had at one time or another over the years.
l. Denial of the victim, wherein the offender maintains that whoever is harmed by an action deserves the harm. “Yeah, some fighters get hurt pretty badly, even killed, but they know what they’re getting into.”
2. Denial of responsibility, wherein one contends acts are caused by forces beyond one’s control. “It’s not my fault if a fighter gets crippled. You can’t keep boxers out of the ring. And if you just could see the way they love it, you wouldn’t think it was cruel.”
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4. Appeal to higher loyalties, wherein attachment to smaller groups takes precedence over attachment to society. “The Sweet Science: Jack Johnson and Dempsey and Louis and Marciano and Ali. It’s a grand American tradition cherished by many thousands. Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer boxed. Joyce Carol Oates is fascinated with boxing, and so are lots of other smart people.”
5. Condemnation of the condemners, wherein those who denounce a certain form of behavior have, themselves, exhibited worse forms of behavior. “Oh, that anti-boxing crowd will tear down any sport that’s rougher than lawn bowling. Those holier-than-thou hypocrites are always looking for something to criticize.”
Wow. Did that little list so easily couple with my own justifications? Yes, I’m afraid so.
A few interesting facts or assertions that I turned up about boxing:
—Ninety percent of boxers sustain brain injuries, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.
—“The causal relationship between thousands of blows to the brain and diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s is accepted by most doctors involved in sports medicine.” (Can any sensitive person not be saddened by the present medical condition of Muhammad Ali?)
—“The British Medical Association, American Medical Association and Australian Medical Association all have standing policies that call for the complete banning of the sport.”
—Over generations, 1,465 boxers have died as a result of boxing injuries (as of November 2007).
And noteworthy information of a different sort was on the cover of the Aug. 14 sports section of The Los Angeles Times. The headline read, “Vick gets next chance with Eagles.”
The article reported that “controversial quarterback” Michael Vick had signed a two-year deal with Philadelphia’s NFL team. Another article, from ESPN, gave figures provided by an unnamed source: “The first year of the deal is for $1.6 million with the second-year option worth $5.2 million. … Vick can also earn an additional $3 million in incentives over the two years of the contract. … ”
According to the L.A. Times, “Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said he doesn’t expect widespread protests and sees it as a good thing that Vick wound up in Philadelphia.
“It’s a city we’ve been looking at very closely because it has a major dogfighting problem. … So Vick’s landing there has the potential to turn around the issue. This gives us a big boost.”
So, where does this leave me and my mini-crisis of conscience? Will I never watch another boxing or MMA match? When the sinner knoweth his sin, doth he repent? As I now sporadically fiddle with the issue, I’m reminded of the famous prayer of St. Augustine: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Grant me a life free of vicarious brutality, but not yet. The matter has mostly subsided into the background noise of daily life, but still it buzzes ever so faintly at the edge of my awareness. At the very least, the bogus high ground that I stood on has departed in a landslide and I have a better view of the illogical and perhaps immoral contradictions within me.
As for Vick, has he cultivated the remorse that PETA has demanded? If we are to believe his words at an Eagles news conference Aug. 14, he is on the right road. Here’s part of what he had to say:
Those words seem sincere. My doubts and critical thoughts about Vick have not totally evaporated, but with a droplet of charity seeping into my stony heart, I wish him well. I hope he avoids trouble and plays for 10 more years and redeems himself in the eyes of man and the gods of man and beast. The Humane Society of the United States has posted a video on its YouTube channel featuring Vick and others denouncing cruelty to animals. In the clip Vick says, “If you own a pet you need to love him with all your heart.”
As it turned out, there were no visible protests from fans in Philadelphia when Vick took the field Aug. 27 in his first preseason game after his return. When he left the game after only six plays, shouts of “We want Vick!” rang from the stands. Maybe we Americans do have the short memories that some of our international critics attribute to us. Or, to put a happier spin on it, maybe we just possess a bigger store of charity than they usually see in us.
But not everyone is as forgiving as those Eagles fans. A Philadelphia-area volunteer organization named Main Line Animal Rescue placed an ad in The Washington Post this month saying it would donate five bags of dog food to a District of Columbia animal shelter for each time Vick was tackled when the Eagles played the Washington Redskins on Oct. 26.
“There’s really nothing we can do about Michael Vick being in Philadelphia,” Bill Smith, founder of the shelter, said in a media report. “But I thought this would be a good way to come up with a solution where we could help a few dogs.”
Smith said his group planned to run similar ads in the hometowns of other Eagles opponents during the season. Next to a picture of a puppyish pit bull is the ad’s tagline: “Because there are no second chances on an empty stomach.”
When NFL Commissioner Goodell announced in early September that Vick would be fully reinstated as of the Sept. 27 game, the Eagles’ third of the regular season, it appeared that the athlete’s long, strange detour had finally ended. On Sunday, according to The Associated Press, “Some in the crowd rose to give Vick a standing ovation as he took the field [in Philadelphia]. ... Before the game, a group of about 25 protesters gathered at the northeast entrance to the stadium, holding signs saying, ‘Vick is sick’ and ‘Ethics over athletics.’ ”
Now it’s a game of wait-and-see.
Can the NFL, Goodell, the Eagles, football fans, pet lovers or anyone else be certain that Vick will not in some way fall from grace again? Of course not. Certainty is hard to come by in a world of humans pushed one way and then the other by fickle currents.
But one thing that is certain: I won’t be casting any more stones at Michael Vick. After a few weeks of thinking about my brother under the skin, and myself, I’ve concluded that I live in a glass house.
T.L. Caswell was on the Los Angeles Times editing staff for more than 20 years and now edits and writes for Truthdig.
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