Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Michael Vick Case Raises Uncomfortable Questions

The Michael Vick case brings to mind many questions but there are two in particular that are not receiving the attention that they deserve: (1) Why does violence against dogs engender so much more public outrage than violence against human beings? (2) Why are opinions about Vick divided so strongly along racial lines? Both of these questions quickly lead the conversation into areas that are very uncomfortable for many people but these issues are too important to ignore simply for the sake of comfort.

The Chicago Tribune's Rick Morrissey discusses the first question in his Wednesday column, writing, "Dogs are defenseless, and we humans are quick to protect the defenseless. It is one of our better qualities. But a woman in the hands of a 230-pound elite athlete is more or less defenseless, too, and I can't remember any case of domestic abuse, sexual assault or murder involving an NFL player that sparked this kind of public outrage." Morrissey goes on to list several examples of NFL players who committed crimes ranging from assault to murder, noting that--with the possible exception of O.J. Simpson--none of these athletes' misdeeds aroused the public fury that Vick's actions have. He concludes, "Let's be clear: It's not that the response to Vick's alleged crimes is overboard; it's that the response to athletes' crimes against women is underwhelming. We might want to ask ourselves why that is." This point is very important. I think that a radio commentator recently got in a lot of trouble by suggesting that Vick would have been "better off" (or words to that effect) if he had raped someone than if he had abused dogs. Obviously, that is a crude and ineffective way of expressing what Morrissey said much more eloquently and directly: taking nothing away from the grave seriousness of what Michael Vick did, it is important for our society to consider why human on human crime does not evoke the outrage that human on dog crime does. No one would be "better off" if Vick had assaulted a person but we would all be a lot better off if we came to grips with our culture's strange and inconsistent attitudes toward violence.

One thing that the Vick case has in common with Simpson's double murder trial is that this country's attitudes toward the defendant are split almost exactly along racial lines. Various polls suggest that white people tend to believe that Vick is guilty, while black people tend to believe that Vick is innocent--or, at the very least, that he is being "brought down" by the powers that be for something that is not that important. Perhaps Vick's upcoming guilty plea will narrow this gulf but, as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Terence Moore suggested during a recent appearance on ESPN, it seems more likely that nothing will greatly weaken the significant support that Vick enjoys in the black community. There is no question that black people have received the short end of the stick from this country's judicial system on many occasions, both as individuals and collectively, but this should not translate into blindly supporting any and every prominent black person who is charged with heinous and felonious crimes. If Vick would have been acquitted this would in no way correct previous injustices; it would just add one more injustice to the list.

It is strange--and more that a little disturbing--that anyone would derive some kind of vicarious thrill from Vick "beating the rap" without regard to whether or not he is guilty. Vick certainly deserves legal representation and the opportunity to contest the charges against him in open court--and his tremendous personal wealth enabled him to hire the finest attorneys money can buy--but in the face of an overwhelming case against him he has decided to admit his guilt. It looks like he either received bad advice or else ignored whatever good advice was given to him, because it is not a good idea to announce one's intention to prove one's innocence and then quickly have to backtrack and make a plea agreement. Vick lied to the public, to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and to Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank--yet it is very easy to find many people who will continue to insist that Vick is somehow getting a raw deal. This is every bit as surreal as the scene more than a decade ago after Simpson was acquitted in his criminal trial, whereupon we saw TV images of black people cheering as if he had just scored an 80 yard touchdown and white people literally crying at what they perceived to be a grave miscarriage of justice. Why is it so difficult to simply look at a case based on its factual merits? Without rehashing all of the particulars of the Simpson case, let's consider Vick's situation. Four witnesses plus his three former co-defendants are all set to testify to Vick's intimate involvement in an illegal dogfighting operation; they are prepared to say under oath that he provided the bulk of the funding for this criminal endeavor and that he actively participated in its most gruesome aspects, including the killing of dogs that did not perform up to expectations. There is apparently a bounty of physical evidence that shows that the dogfighting operation took place on Vick's property. I have already written that what Vick has done to himself is "tragic" but there is a big difference between lamenting that fact and simply being in denial that Vick is about to be a convicted felon.

Vick could actually go a long way toward both helping himself and narrowing the racial divide if at some point he publicly and unequivocally admits that he was wrong and apologizes for his actions. He needs to stop issuing statements through his attorney and start speaking directly to the American people. There is a lot more at stake here than whether or not he plays in the NFL again. If Vick in any way lends credence to the idea that he has been brought down unfairly--as opposed to the reality that he brought himself down with his own actions--then he will be doing a disservice not only to himself but to our society as a whole. On the other hand, if he demonstrates true contrition he can achieve a victory far more important that any that he ever won on the football field.

5 comments:

madnice said...

These issues are uncomfortable but shouldnt be. Racism will always be here and most white people need to realize it. I say white people because black people already know it hasnt left and white people dont experience racism. The racial divide is more in Atlanta (obviously) than anywhere else.

I understand dogs are important to a lot of people but they arent people. There are more things to worry about than dogs. I know what he did is illegal (the gambling is probably the biggest part of this situation) but I dont think he should serve this much time.

Mary Winkler kills her husband and does 7 months. What kind of world are we living in? If she was black, would she have gotten just 7 months? I know she had a stress disorder and....well let me get back to the issue of sports. Ive heard people say Vick should be in prison forever. Its a shame what kind of world we live in. The racial divide is definitely similar to OJ.

vednam said...

I suspect that the sentiment that many black people have that Vick is getting a raw deal has as much to do with the way he has been vilified in the media as his impending sentence.

Another ridiculous thing about the general public's outrage is the fact that animals (cows, pigs, chicken, etc.) are slaughtered every day for food, hunting wildlife is deemed perfectly acceptable, and yet Vick is the devil's son for being involved in dogfighting.

David Friedman said...

Madnice:

We don't know how much time Vick is going to serve, so it is a bit early to suggest that he is going to get too much time (unless you believe that he should not serve any time at all, because it certainly appears that he will serve some time behind bars).

I don't think that Vick should be in prison forever; I think that he should get whatever the median sentence is for a first time offender who funds a dogfighting operation of that scale. I don't know off the top of my head exactly what that would be but it seems to me that he should get more jail time than the other co-defendants because he ran the show and because he was the last party to cop a plea.

I think that he should be suspended by the NFL for one season after he is released from jail--this is a serious crime and he compounded things by lying to Goodell and Blank. After the one season suspension, he should be eligible to apply for reinstatement.

Vednam:

I realize that people have a wide range of views about this, but I would distinguish between killing an animal for food and forcing animals to fight to the death for entertainment. To lump all animal deaths into the same category is like failing to distinguish between cold blooded murder and killing someone in an act of self-defense. Killing an animal to eat it, whether done by humans or other species, is part of the natural order; dogfighting is simply barbaric. I know that my stance does not go far enough for the PETA people and goes too far for others, but that is how I see it.

Tammy Grimes said...

I believe that we as humans have 'walls' where people are concerned, but not where dogs are concerned, because we believe that dogs will not hurt us emotionally and let us down the way people can and often do.

We believe that they are more capable of loving us unconditionally, and therefore we are more capable of loving them unconditionally....which leads us to feeling more outraged when anyone does them harm.

Incidentally, I work for chained dogs every day through my nonprofit org Dogs Deserve Better, and have been attacked by a foster dog I got off a chain, (an unneutered male on a chain has the highest bite factor) sending me via ambulance to the hospital.

So even though I now have a very real understanding that a dog can and will harm a human given the right circumstances, I still am very quick to defend them and still see them as defenseless and more in need of my protection.

To read more about chained dogs, visit http://www.dogsdeservebetter.org

Animal Chaplain said...

Dogfighting is one more piece of evidence our country is in need of a spiritual transformation (please note I said spiritual and not necessarily religious). Animals are sentient beings - they feel pain, and they suffer, just like we do. They are not more important, or less important than human beings, but like human beings, they are important, too.

Every major faith teaches its followers to be responsible stewards of animals and the Earth. Please help us get the word out that caring for animals is an important part of just being a decent person and citizen. If we make this a priority, there will be no more dogfighting horror stories.

Chaplain Nancy Cronk
Founder, AnimalChaplains.com