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Get this: Michael Vick, a superstar quarterback in the National Football League, pulling down an obscene amount of coin to play a game he probably loves, could lose his career because he made sport of watching dogs kill, and die. Good fun for deranged folk. Maybe I'm a hard judge. I never understood the appeal of blowing a deer's brains out, either.
This whole saga becomes more incredibly warped as the days bleed away. Vick was becoming the face of an unstoppable corporate monster that has no parallel in American sport. He was on the cover of video games, shouted out in rap songs. He was a celebrity nationwide, but an icon in Atlanta, a virtual deity to a community ready to elevate a new hero, all their own. He was obsessed over. Could he ever master the west coast offense? Would the Falcons provide him with a true number one receiver? This was important business, the evaluation of a prodigy. Now, he is a problem. For fans, for journalists, for the league he starred for. And he isn't going away.
The National Football League is Teflon. When sports-writers, nationwide, decided to suddenly start giving a damn about steroids a few years back, they directed their venom at baseball. Baseball, you see, was guilty by association. It is eternally entwined with reputable forces such as tradition, purity, and Ernie Banks. Even worse, its players have recognizable faces, and chase records that the average American may vaguely be aware of. Ah, the moral indignation, the pitiful self-righteousness! Baseball wasn't blameless, of course. Famous for always being ahead of the curve, dating back to it's progressive perspective on integration, the contemporary commissioner, Bud Selig, somehow didn't introduce a stringent drug testing program within his game's landscape until a few idle years passed in a new century. By then, the damage had been done. Who could forget the sport's embarrassment, when those vials slipped out of Mark McGwire's socks as he rounded the bases after his record-smashing dinger? Hell, it looked like he was leaving breadcrumbs in the woods. Terrible stuff.
So, the Show was castigated, a piñata that networks like ESPN could pound on to reinforce their unassailable level of integrity. Yeah, ESPN sure is hard-hitting, except when it's canceling original programming, petrified of a sports league it is supposed to be covering. [Christ, I shudder to think of a rift between ESPN and the NFL. Where would my drinking life be without NFL Live? Check out my liquor game: An analyst says the word "football", and you take a shot: "This guy's a good football player." "They are a good football team." "You want to throw the football. You want to run the football." "That is just not good football." "That is great football." "Football." Shot. Shot. Shot. Shot. Shot. Shot. Shot. Cool, right? I call this game "alcohol poisoning".]
This in mind, it's easily understood why very little was whispered about the NFL, back in those heady Congressional hearing days, when the economy was better and Bud Selig was burnt in effigy. The League is above reproach. They get called into Congressional meetings to get patted on the back.
Michael Vick presents an interesting case study. Journalists just adore lumping issues into one gigantic cluster of simplicity that could be easily diagnosed by your average caveman. We've even seen this type of amalgamation applied to tragedies. Being an individual only goes so far. After the tragic death of Sean Taylor, the Pro Bowler killed in a botched home invasion, there was a definite sentiment among some members of the credentialed menagerie that this horrible event was an act of revenge, and yes, sadly enough, pathetically enough, inevitable comeuppance for a "thug".
Yes sir, there was brilliant detective work being done. This must have been payback, an orchestrated plot for retribution. Except it wasn't. This was no hit. It was a robbery gone wrong. And a young life lost, just as it began to truly grow. Rush to judge. Rush to label. What about that Duke Lacrosse team? Spoiled white kids who thought they could take whatever they wanted, right? Thank God the reverend Jesse Jackson bought a semblance of fairness to that whole scandal. It could have been divisive, ugly.
This is America. The individual is supposed to manner. Yet there is always great haste in affixing permanent identities. Laziness in action, now presented with a challenge... what of Michael Vick?
Here is a perfect storm. The untouchable NFL compromised by one of its brightest stars. And the media machine it so easily manipulates has been coerced, by sheer volume, to report on the seediness oozing from underneath all the wealth and power. No, it isn't steroids. That is yesterday's news. The talking heads are now free to focus on something more easily quarantined, a renegade brigade operating on the outer fringes, with Sheriff Goodell in hot pursuit. Roger Goodell has been avenging, dishing harsh discipline since becoming commissioner. The benefit of doubt has disappeared, as behavior reaches an indisputable low. But he too, is faced with the Vick quandary. Will he suspend the disgraced quarterback for an additional season after his sentence is up? Until now, that cloak of anonymity has served the league excellently. Tank Williams is organizing a coup? Suspend him! And the mainstream fan, the one who really matters, asks afterward who Tank Williams even is, and is amused to find a law abiding defensive back goes by the same moniker. The dust is wiped clean. The publicity machine is tarnished, but in tact. Terrence Kiel and codeine, whatever are you talking about governor? Were any hopeless romantics crying about football losing it's soul after Nick Kaczur became entangled in an investigation involving oxycotin? Did Sports Illustrated release a cover story pondering what we should do with our tainted memories after Rodney Harrison failed a drug test? Paradise lost! The angels weep.
With Vick, the grime sticks. For Goodell is confronted by a superstar, a face that Mr. Mainstream easily recognizes, and an issue that has the masses choosing sides. Be not surprised upon seeing picket signs. The most ardent of his supporters will scream that Vick deserves a second chance immediately. So how in heavens does the league handle a mess that people won't simply forget?
We love a great comeback story. Plenty of leeway is provided. Hell, Latrell Sprewell nearly strangled his coach and still Knick fans happily sung a sweet redemption song. But this won't work for Vick. The real problem stems from unfamiliarity. The mob has not programmed itself to embrace a jailbird narrative. Michael Vick may never rise from the ashes, because his career path is simply staggering in its originality. This fall is extraordinary. But is it incomprehensible? How will we define Michael Vick upon his return? It will take something amazing. Something jarring. Something downright frightening... It will take an original thought.
Are we ready?