It would have been so much better if Michael Vick had risked — and lost — it all for just about anything else. There might have been a novel/movie/television series in it. Once upon a time, he would have done it for the love of a woman. That, of course, would have been so 19th century. So, maybe it could have been for some political/ideological cause; there is a story with a nice pedigree. And, of course, he might have even done it for money; everyone can understand that. Or drugs. The hedonistic temptation is something we’ve all felt in one form or another.
But Vick threw it all away for dogfighting.
The word “tragic” (“catharsis of pity and fear,” remember) doesn’t quite seem to apply here. We aren’t talking Oedipus or even Jay Gatsby. This is about a man who signed his first pro-football contract for $3 million and a few years later was given a raise to $130 million. And this was just the base upon which would be piled one lucrative endorsement (think Nike) after another. Vick was a sports celebrity of the highest magnitude and his star, it seemed, could only burn brighter. (The reader may, at this point, supply his own supernova metaphor.) Vick lost all that on a weakness for something so sordid it actually can’t be shown, in full, on television. Imagine.
He owned Atlanta the way no athlete ever has. Sports commentators inevitably got all carried away when talking about Vick and his limitless potential. He was rewriting the book on the most important position in football. He was a new kind of quarterback. Forget those old dudes like John Unitas, Joe Montana, John Elway, and the rest of them. This was not a thrower who could scramble and get rid of the ball. This was an explosive runner with a rocket arm. A force of nature who could make things happen all by himself, through sheer genius. He did it not “on the run” but “on the fly.” Vick didn’t improvise. He created. He was an artist and a new masterpiece was possible any time he touched the ball. And, since he played quarterback, he touched the ball a lot.
Vick was the ideal player for the new ethos of sports, which values the highlights over everything. The game-winning drive engineered by John Unitas in the famous overtime game against the Giants? Boring. Vick would settle that business in one electrifying play.
The slow accumulation of tension doesn’t do it for the modern fan. He wants action. Full-throttle, over-the-top, in-your-face, etc. all the time. And Vick was just the man to give it to him.
So he became what passes in sportsworld for a “hero” or an “icon” (leading candidates, in a strong field, for most corrupted words in the English language). Vick could not only walk on water, he could throw the football 50 yards on a string while doing it.
Still, he plainly wasn’t an entirely nice man. There were these episodes of petulance and flashes of arrogance. There was an ugly sex scandal. (Ho hum.) And the cameras once caught him giving some hecklers the finger; after which he made one of those formalistic apologies where he said something about how that “wasn’t Mike Vick.”
But, of course, it was.
Vick thought — rather, he felt — that the rules didn’t apply to “Mike Vick.” This happens to a certain kind of athlete, as anyone who has been to an American high school knows.
And now it turns out that Vick has a side that is considerably darker than anyone would have suspected before evidence of dogfighting began turning up at a house that he bought with $34,000 from that first $3 million contract. Vick liked to watch two pit bills go at it and try to tear each other apart. It amused him to bet small sums (a lousy few thousand) on the outcome of a fight. And when dogs didn’t perform, he would kill them by hanging, electrocution, or beating them to death.
One wishes that Vick were the introspective sort and as talented with words as he is with a football. Then, while he is doing time for the crimes to which he will soon plead guilty, he might write a book about the dark, seductive, lure of cruelty. (And if you can’t imagine such a book, try reading Harry Crews’s A Feast of Snakes in which the protagonist enjoys dogfights.) If Vick could use his time instead to take us inside the mind of Mike Vick, he might be an American Dostoevsky.
But fat chance. What we will get is tears on Oprah.
F. Scott Fitzgerald would have had a tough time with this one. Hard to find the glitter in dogfights even though his sometime literary buddy had this thing for the bullfight and did pretty well with it. But the roaring celebrity that Vick enjoyed until a few weeks ago might have interested Fitzgerald. And, then, Vick will certainly be a test of the famous Fitzgerald aphorism about there being no second acts in American life.
Fitzgerald was, of course, dead wrong about that one. There are all kinds of second and third acts. One has to wonder if Fitzgerald had ever heard of President Grover Cleveland, for instance.
But Mike Vick will be a real test of the American sense of forgiveness. This one may be just too sordid. But, again, maybe not. We’ll see, when he gets out of jail, if Vick can change the definition of “intolerable” the same way he changed the position of quarterback.
– Geoffrey Norman is editor of www.vermonttiger.com.