There are few things in this world that elicit more emotion from people than animals.
Just being in the same room as them can make us so happy that we forget all of our troubles for a few minutes. On the flipside, seeing them hurt or in pain — especially out of negligence or, even worse, the deliberate infliction of harm — can bring about a seething, unforgiving rage that we didn’t even recognize we were capable of.
That’s where a lot of Pittsburghers — football fans or not — find themselves today. Last week, the Steelers signed free agent quarterback and convicted felon Michael Vick to a one-year contract. The team made the move after backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski suffered a season-ending injury Sept. 23.
Vick needs no introduction. He is the talented, prolific college quarterback who brought his game to the NFL and to another level in 2001 when the Atlanta Falcons drafted him first overall. His big arm and quick feet led him to three Pro Bowls and a couple of playoff appearances in his first six seasons.
Then he screwed up big. He became the target of a federal racketeering investigation that alleged that Vick was the central figure in a massive dog-fighting operation. The allegations were disgusting. The fights were put on as sport. Money was wagered. Dogs tore each other apart and, if they performed poorly, Vick and his associates tortured and killed them. It was despicable.
In August 2007, Vick pled guilty to financing the operation, prospering from the proceeds and to the destruction of several animals. He turned himself in and that November began serving time before being sentenced a month later to 23 months in prison. He was released in July 2009 after serving 18 months in the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan.
After prison, he spent five seasons playing for the Philadelphia Eagles, and last season with the New York Jets. And now Vick is with the Steelers, and a lot of fans aren’t happy.
Just ask Twitter:
“How the ‘f’ does Michael Vick get signed to the Steelers on #NationalDogDay.”
“Bye Bye @steelers. I'll be back when you get rid of Michael Vick!”
“Sucks to be a steeler fan now. Thank you Michael Vick for ruining #steelernation”
Emotionally, I see why people are upset. But when I stop and think about it, and I process this situation through my own personal belief system, this new level of Michael Vick hatred seems unwarranted and a bit unfair.
To be clear, I’m taking football completely out of it. Could Michael Vick help the Steelers? Maybe, if it comes to that. From a football standpoint, he’s a 35-year-old quarterback whose skills have declined and who has been inconsistent in recent years. But he was probably the best veteran backup available. I’m also refusing to answer this absurd notion that signing Vick is not the Steelers way. That somehow this franchise is better than that. The team’s handling of past legal controversies of guys like Ben Roethisberger, Alameda Ta’amu, James Harrison and Santonio Holmes, to name a few, shoots holes through that whole conversation.
Here’s my issue with the Vick bashing: an incontrovertible belief in second chances. We have written many stories here at City Paper over the years about the need for programs that give those released from prison a chance to turn their lives around. We have covered Amachi Pittsburgh, a program that works with the children of inmates to help them cope with a parent’s incarceration and helps the family reunite after the inmate’s release. We have written about efforts to “ban the box,” undoing the requirement that those previously convicted of a crime check a box on a job application indicating their past incarceration.
Michael Vick has been out of prison for more than six years. He hasn’t reoffended. He has put his life back together. He has fought for stronger laws against dog fighting. He paid to rehabilitate the dogs from the grotesque dog-fighting ring. So why, six years later, are we so put off by him playing football in this city? The answers are simple. First, he’s a professional athlete, and second, his victims were animals.
If you are a person who believes in second chances, this type of scrutiny is wholly unfair. I believe that if Mike Vick were just an Average Joe in the same situation, many of the same people who want him run out of town in an Uber would applaud him for turning his life around.
Regardless of his job, I’m glad that he turned his life around because it was in a really bad place. The same as I cheer for other ex-offenders who get out of prison and make something of their lives.
Look, fans are right for hating what Michael Vick did in the past. And those actions might still burn so much that some people don’t like him now. But regardless of who he is, he has done enough with his second chance to earn at least a little grace from a city that knows a little something about making the most out of second chances.