From any perspective, it’s a gruesome tale. Since late April, developments have steadily emerged—in increasingly gory detail—about NFL superstar Michael Vick’s alleged involvement in illegal dogfighting. Recently, Vick was indicted by a grand jury for his ties to “Bad Newz Kennels”, a group that bred pit bulls and fought them in illegal matches, some of which are suspected of taking place at a home owned by Vick in southern Virginia. In addition, Vick stands accused of having dogs put down (as well as doing it himself) with extreme measures: gunshot, electrocution, drowning, and strangulation. In one alleged incident, a dog was killed by being smashed against the ground.
As more of these allegations have come to light, public outrage at Vick has grown accordingly. Both the NFL and Vick’s team, the Atlanta Falcons, have been the targets of picketing and protests by members of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), and the Humane Society. These groups are far from alone, though. In addition to the usual sources of sports-related outrage (talk radio hosts and newspaper columnists chief among them), indignation has poured down from the highest levels of government, with Senators Robert Byrd and John Kerry coming out publicly against Vick and the unspeakable acts of which he stands accused.
Beyond Vick’s precipitous fall from public favor, though, there’s also a financial cost to bear for all of this. As one of the leagues most explosive and high-profile players, Vick has been, quite literally, a poster boy for both the Falcons and the NFL since his arrival to the league in 2001. Even as the first details of his involvement with dogfighting were surfacing, he was showcased at the 2007 NFL draft in support of the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre (both Vick and his younger brother Marcus played quarterback for the school). Now, however, sponsors are abandoning the standout like rats from a sinking ship.
For its part, Nike—which has released several lines of Vick-brand clothing and shoes—has suspended the release of its latest model, the “Air Zoom Vick V” (though previous items will remain available for purchase). The NFL, too, has been forced to take steps to insure its ratings and quell the controversy. The league’s new commissioner, Roger Godell, who began his tenure by suspending troubled defensive back Adam “PacMan” Jones, has sought to shore up his image as a disciplinarian in light of Vick’s alleged transgressions. Most recently (as of this writing), he’s prevented the quarterback from attending the team’s preseason training camp, reserving the right for further disciplinary action as more information comes to light.
Before the dogfighting scandal, it should be noted, Vick’s image was already suffering. He had an apparent run-in with airport security, who accused Vick of smuggling marijuana in a water bottle (no legal action came of the incident). He also made waves by offering an obscene gesture to a group of Falcons fans during a loss last season. In the court of public opinion, however, arguing with a TSA staffer or shooting the bird pale in comparison to fighting pit bulls. On television and the web, brutal images and videos of injured and killed dogs, invariably juxtaposed with shots of cute and cuddly puppies, serve as stark indictments of the brutality and cruelty that these animals endure, stoking the fire of public anger ever higher.
Still, that a practice so widely reviled as dogfighting could command both a following and, as reported, millions of dollars worth of investment, reveals a stark divide lurking somewhere in modern America. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a practicing vegetarian who has to leave the room whenever a news program offers up footage of these fights and their bloody consequences. I can’t walk out, however, without wondering about my own position relative to the men (as it appears to exclusively be) who are motivated to practice such behavior. Outrage, in all its forms, is generally a visceral experience, much more frequently felt than examined by its practitioners. We see a bloodied, whimpering dog and we immediately think: cruelty, malice, injustice, and barbarism. But who are “we”? And, by extension, who are “they”? What’s shaping the backlash that’s currently threatening the career of one of the American sports’ biggest stars? How did we get here?
To answer the last question, an historian would take us back to Roman times, when dogs accompanied soldiers into war (think Russell Crowe’s canine companion in the opening scenes of Gladiator); such dogs fought other animals, like bears, for sport in the Coliseum. Then we might consider pre-Victorian England, where dogfighting matches were the exclusive purview of sophisticated gentlemen. (Later, the same Victorian prescriptions that rendered a naked ankle scandalous similarly frowned upon bloodsports.) But dogfighting—in one form or another—also evolved simultaneously in various places around the world; it’s still practiced in Afghanistan, Russia, and elsewhere—and without the felony punishments that loom over Michael Vick.
Back in the US, both the legal and social penalties that threaten Vick reflect a collective concern for animals that seems, on a large scale, to be specially emphasized in the West. In America, for example, dogfighting, cockfighting, and other animal bloodsports are prohibited by fines and, in some cases, incarceration. What’s more, such stricture seems to have a kind of political dimension. If we follow Mahatma Gandhi’s assertion that, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”, then it seems that the US and other countries have determined to buttress their collective morality with punishments for those individuals who abuse animals.
At the same time, technological advances have evolved to shield Western consumers from more institutional varieties of animal cruelty—namely the caging, drugging, slicing, eviscerating, chopping, grinding, and packaging of livestock animals. We hide this behavior behind the walls of huge “processing” plants, a term, like “packing”, chosen to sterilize the violence that allows meat and poultry to arrive—cleaned and (relatively) bloodless—on our plates. And we have pets. Lots of them. And superstores like Petco, who owe their existence solely to the amount of disposable income we can devote to animals we would never dream of eating. Yet, here, in the civilized West, a land of designer pet collars, pet cemeteries, even pet-themed restaurants and bakeries, dogfighting has reared its ugly head.
The incongruity is shocking, and goes a long way toward explaining the significant fuss that’s being made about Vick’s alleged involvement in dogfighting. More than that, though, the controversy points to a deep divide between wildly differing occupants of a shared country, a situation similar to the one described by anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s in his essay, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”. In the work, Geertz discusses Balinese society, but anticipates its cultural relevance to the US, writing, “As much of America surfaces in a ball park, on a golf links, at a race track, or around a poker table, much of Bali surfaces in a cock ring.” Geertz goes on to discuss the meaning of the cockfight for its practitioners, as well as the problem such behavior poses for other members of Balinese society: “The elite, which is not itself so very puritan, worries about the poor, ignorant peasant gambling all his money away, about what foreigners will think, about the waste of time better devoted to building up the country. It sees cockfighting as ‘primitive,’ ‘backward,’ ‘unprogressive,’ and generally unbecoming an ambitious nation.”
For the Balinese upper class, it isn’t the animal abuse that bothers them; it is the depraved spectacle of the gamblers. For those speaking out against dogfighting stateside, however, the reverse seems true. It’s not the betting that accompanies these matches that’s caused the outcry; it’s been instead the spectacle of animal abuse. Still, Geertz goes further to link the Balinese elite’s anxiety to their sense of national identity. It’s not that betting on cockfights disturbs per se, but rather that it makes Bali seem like an undeveloped country in the eyes of “foreigners”.
Could the same dynamic be at work in the Vick protests? In his essay, Geertz describes an upper class that sees the lower class practice of animal bloodsport as detrimental to the national image. PETA and ASPCA protestors, no doubt, would assert that their concerns are first and foremost for the dogs themselves. But just how, and from where, did such concern evolve? Clearly it’s not a universally held truth that all animals should be treated with love and kindness. Much like in Bali, Vick’s indictment reveals a cultural divide between those who would protect pit bulls, and eradicate what they deem to be unseemly, barbaric behavior, and those who put their own interests ahead of the prevailing morality.
Complicating the issue in Vick’s case, of course, is the element of race, which creates social fissures in a variety of ways, particularly in the United States. In the wake of Vick’s indictment, news programs and commentators have described dogfighting as an “urban” phenomenon, or else something part of the “gangsta” culture, labeling that is really just so much code for young black males. African American interest in dogfighting has been explained as the result of the use of pit bulls as inexpensive, but necessary, anti-theft devices in impoverished, black communities. It’s also been blamed on the glamorization of pit bulls in hip-hop. DMX, for one, poses with an attacking dog on a recent album cover.
Outkast’s Big Boi proudly owns his own Pitfall Kennel, which studs, rears, and sells the dogs for thousands of dollars. It’s far from certain that any of these dogs will end up being used for fighting, but the interest in pit bulls is highlighted by the kennel itself as a culturally specific phenomenon. Among its satisfied clients, Pitfall’s website lists several pro athletes and recording artists—from Roy Jones, Jr. (boxing) and Richard Hamilton (basketball) to Usher and Jermain Dupri. Nearly every client listed is black; nearly every one is male.
As such, it’s hard to divorce the specter of dogfighting in the US from the specter of race. Furthermore, and to return to Geertz, a person’s involvement in dogfighting may not signal, as protesters see it, his enjoyment of the spectacle of animal cruelty. Geertz asserts that, in Bali “it is only apparently cocks that are fighting there. Actually, it is men.” In addition, “To anyone who has been in Bali any length of time, the deep psychological identification of Balinese men with their cocks is unmistakable.
The double entendre here is deliberate. It works in exactly the same way in Balinese as it does in English, even to producing the same tired jokes, strained puns, and uninventive obscenities.” To sum up, to Balinese cockfighters, the birds are not chickens, they are symbols, avatars of their owners’ strength. When they fight each other, it’s actually men engaging in a kind of combat by proxy.
It may seem troubling to invoke Geertz’s anthropological observations, with their accompanying baggage of Western paternalism, with what’s going on among black dogfighters in the US. To be clear, I don’t want to cast dogfighting as some exotic practice of an inscrutable people. Instead, I’d like to know what someone could possibly get out of such a horrific practice and, conversely, to know why such a practice causes the rest of recoil in such public horror. One answer might lie in Geertz’s assertion that Balinese cockfighters occupy the underclass of their society; their participation represents both an evasion of controlling authority and, perhaps more importantly, serves as a source of empowerment. Undeniably, such a dynamic has striking counterpoints in African American culture.
For example, academics such as Robin D.G. Kelley, Todd Boyd, Michael Eric Dyson (whose body of work was recently covered by PopMatters), and others have demonstrated how staples of African American youth culture—from bling to jeep beats to gangsta rap—are essentially material expressions of empowerment in the face of an institutional denial of the same. Reading Geertz’s assessment of cockfighting, it’s not hard to imagine that the same goes for dogfighting. The pit bulls in these contests, like Balinese chickens, cease to be animals and instead are surrogate expressions of their owners’ strength, courage, and power. Even if you never enter your pit bull in a fight, simply owning one of them is equivalent for many to displaying the same kind of attributes. Experts agree that a pit bull is one dog that’s not to be fucked with. So what might we surmise about their owners?
Clearly, this is not what motivates all pit bull owners. But such a display of power (subversive power at that) certainly comes into play in the decision to train and fight the dogs for sport. In the case of Michael Vick, a man paid millions of dollars to wear exaggerated shoulders and a protruding crotch guard, dogfighting might seem like simply a logical extension of being “the Man”—in every sense of the word.
Just exactly what goes on in Vick’s mind, however, will remain a mystery. What can be said for certain is that a cow in Hindu India is perceived in a radically different light than a cow on a Texas beef ranch. More importantly, even within a national boundary our relationship to animals, like most things, is not a universal experience. This is because other, less static borders—economic, racial, cultural—are at work, challenging (those on top might say undermining) predominant notions of how to behave and what to believe.
Vick’s opponents, however, would not likely see their protest as a clash of civilizations, rather as a bid to raise awareness of dogfighting and to save the lives of innocent animals. Clearly, that’s a good thing, and not least of all for the dogs. But an even better outcome of the Vick controversy would be an increased awareness of radically different value systems that exist in any one country, not as individual aberrations, but rather as embedded social systems that flare into competition and conflict on a regular basis.
At this point, we should recall Geertz’s discussion of how cockfighting disturbs the Balinese sense of nationhood. The parallels here are striking, particularly for those who hold a monolithic idea of America as a place where everyone thinks that dogs are cute and cows are delicious. For what Vick’s alleged dogfighting offers up is not merely a competing idea of America and American values, but instead a competing reality of what this country is all about. Whether or not that idea makes it to the level of national discussion remains to be seen, but it’s clear whose America remains on top. For his part, Vick’s reality is likely to go on trial within the year.