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Redemption Songs: Rehabilitating Michael Vick

Michael Vick has arrived at the final stage of a well-known formula: transgression-outrage-apology-punishment-contrition-and, finally, forgiveness.

"My whole life was a lie... Everything from A to Z." -- Michael Vick
"The moralists scream, 'He's all mine.'" -- “The Rules", The Tragically Hip

Prognostication is a common practice in sports. Player performances, the outcome of games, coaching and athlete tenure -- these things and more are grist for speculation. Conjecture is a part of the fabric of sports, really. It fills smoky beer halls, cheesy sports bars, online message boards, blog posts, bleachers, and teleprompters. It spurs debate and sells advertising time -- and, for the most part, it's as futile as it is ubiquitous.

The truth is that there are no fortune tellers in sports, or anywhere else. For every “expert" with an opinion on the upcoming match, there's someone else who begs to differ. Between the two, the correct prediction is as surely divined as a coin toss. Every week brings upset and surprise. Better to speak in likelihoods. Statistically speaking, then, there are likelihoods in sports that definitely approach certainties: the Chicago Cubs not winning the World Series, for example. Another safe bet has to do with athlete scandals.

More specifically, if ever an athlete commits an act that incites public outrage, and that athlete survives the furor with their athletic ability intact (this is key), then that same athlete will -- eventually, inevitably -- be forgiven. The case of Michael Vick is merely just the latest in the sports scandal cycle to confirm this likelihood, an outcome so predictably sure that it seems to confirm a formula: transgression-outrage-apology-punishment-contrition-and, finally, forgiveness.

Vick's recent redemption as the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles is only the latest in a long and storied line of pro athlete prodigal sons and daughters returning to the popular fold. See Muhammad Ali, Jennifer Capriati, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Alex Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte, and countless others for examples of those who have misstepped, faced public castigation, and then heard the return of lost applause once more.

In the case of Michael Vick, it's been just under three years since he was sentenced to a 23-month prison term for his role in running a dog fighting operation. The cultural complexities informing Vick's behavior have been discussed in this column, Who's Doggin' Who? and elsewhere. As Vick takes the field this season, though, it's worth examining what the absence of outrage now indicates, as opposed to the prior protest that eventually saw him jailed.

When he was sentenced in December of 2007, a great many felt that Vick had gotten what he deserved. Still others thought his involvement in the dog fighting ring merited a harsher punishment. After 19 months of prison, though, followed by more time under house arrest and a bankruptcy filing, Vick found conditional employment with the Philadelphia Eagles. During 2009, he sat on the bench, rarely seeing any playing time as a reserve quarterback to Donovan McNabb and McNabb's back-up Kevin Kolb.

This past off-season, however, McNabb was traded to Washington and, in the first game of the season, starting quarterback Kevin Kolb suffered a concussion. Vick entered the game and led the team in a furious, if unsuccessful, comeback against the Green Bay Packers. His play was so impressive that Philadelphia head coach Andy Reid named him the starter going forward. The next week, he threw for nearly 300 yards and was named the conference Offensive Player of the Month.

Less than three years has passed since Michael Vick was arguably the most hated man in America. Today, his jerseys are once again gracing, and flying off, the racks of sporting goods stores. He's a featured interview subject on NFL.com. He's the talk of sportscasters who praise him where once they damned him. In short, Vick is back.

How? What turn of events conspired to restore Vick's popularity? While it should be noted that a vocal minority still oppose Vick's return to the field, those voices of protest sound far fainter than they did a few years ago. The focus these days is on the “maturation" of Michael Vick -- both as a player and as a human being. While this discussion is, of this writing, nearly entirely positive, a closer look reveals how Vick's return to football is being used to reinforce the same stereotypical assumptions that assailed him when he was sent to jail.

A good example can be found in the commentary of Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio. When asked to explain Vick's newfound success, he noted that “the big thing… really is coaching, and for the first time in his career [Vick] has a head coach… and offensive coordinator who are persuading him to resist that temptation to rely upon his instinct." In other words, the reason that Vick is successful today is because he is finally listening to his superiors.

Such compliments are universally backhanded, and speak to a host of racial assumptions that surround black quarterbacks in particular. Florio's praise opposes coaching acumen with Vick's “instinct", code for the natural, physical talent associated with black quarterbacks who nevertheless lack the mental proficiency to succeed in such a complicated role. The suggestion here is that Vick is better when he leaves the thinking to the coaches.

Such praise of Vick, then, only serves to reinforce the stereotype of the dim-witted, overly-physical black athlete that emerged three years ago with his trial, but that has been in use since the time of slavery. These days, such assumptions are linguistically coded, both with respect to critiques (as in “thug" or “gangsta") and, as is the case with Florio, compliments. To say that Vick has “grown up" or “matured" activates the kind of paternalistic thinking that insists upon the higher intellectual authority of a (statistically white) head coach.

For his part, Vick has learned to follow these narrative lines unerringly. Apologetic and contrite throughout his trial and return, he's condemned his former lifestyle to anyone and everyone who will listen. Not that he's wrong to do so, but it seems as if Vick himself has come to understand that the surest way to return to our good graces is to parrot popular criticisms leveled at him and other black athletes. Of his time in Atlanta, for whom he played before he was jailed, Vick has made the frank admission of being “somewhat lazy", saying that “there was a lot more [he] could have done off the field" in order to be successful there. Such an admission gives commentators all the validation they need to frame Vick's current success as the outcome of personal growth (read: putting aside stereotypical black laziness and a reliance on genetic ability in favor of the conservative ethic of anonymous work and deference to authority).

It may be that Vick is, indeed, putting in more work as the quarterback in Philadelphia than he did while in Atlanta. It might also be true that he's listening more to his coaches. The people whom he's most clearly attending to, however, are the commentators. Likewise, media members are happy to hear Vick publically echo their own views of what it takes to be successful. As a reward, they seem willing to accept Vick back into the fold. As Mike Florio writes, “Though Vick's behavior shouldn't be forgotten, it's no longer relevant to who he is, to what he has accomplished, and to where he's heading."

It's not an outright granting of forgiveness, which Vick himself will no doubt realize. Still, Vick and the commentators enjoy an odd symbiosis. Vick needs them to rehabilitate his image and make him palatable for consumers and league officials. Similarly, the writers are able to prop themselves up with Vick's willing validation of their brand of normative behavior and racialized identity. This doesn't, of course, excuse Vick's dogfighting, but it does illuminate the grounds for a pro athlete's readmission into the media's good graces. While the question of where he's headed remains to be answered (particularly after his recent rib injury), it's a safe bet that he won't be going too far from the grasp of sportswriters and pundits.

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