Friday, August 14, 2009


Remember Hillary’s 2008 campaign ad that asked whom you wanted to answer when the White House phone rang at 3 a.m.? The joke was that she’d be best at it, because she’d be waiting up for Bill to come home.

Middle-of-the-night calls are a trial for coaches as well as politicians, especially coaches of the football variety. Few of those fellas crawl between the sheets without fearing that their slumber will be interrupted with the information that one of their players had drunkenly wrapped his Escalade around a tree or been arrested for being involved in a bar fight, beating up his girlfriend, or worse. Wise coaches keep an all-purpose statement at hand, expressing concern for both victims and perps and promising that the team would make a thorough inquiry into the matter before commenting further.

Football players being what they are (overmuscled and overamped), that’s ever been so. I recall in my 1950s reportorial salad days learning that the newspapers in my beloved college home of Champaign, Illinois, had a gentleman’s agreement with the local authorities to keep quiet the less-than-felonious antics of University of Illinois athletes. A main beneficiary of this policy was Ray Nitschke, the linebacker who enjoyed taking on all comers in townie bars before moving on to a more menschlike existence as a pro in Green Bay.

These days tabloid values rule and mum isn’t the word where jock misdeeds are concerned. True or not, it also seems as though there are more of them. Outrage of all sorts is up, too, and the leaders of our sports leagues feel moved to respond to it by doing, well, something. Thus it is that they have become self-appointed extensions of the law’s long arm, kind of like the pincers grocers use to get cans off their top shelves.

This is a windy way to get around to the cases of the footballers Michael Vick, Donte Stallworth and Plaxico Burress, which currently are vexing many. Vick and Stallworth committed criminal offenses and have served prison or jail time for them—Vick 18 months for staging dog fights and Stallworth 24 days for killing a pedestrian while driving drunk. (Make what you will of THAT difference.) Roger Goodell, the corporate lawyer who is commissioner of all the NFLs, piled on by banning the released Vick for the first five games of the league’s current season and docking Stallworth a full year’s play.

He’ll be doing much the same for Burress once the regular law gets done dealing with the wide receiver for carrying an unregistered handgun into a New York nightclub and wounding himself with it there. You’d think that prison and the title of World’s Biggest Doofus would be punishment enough for the guy, but I guess it won’t be.

Where Goodell, et al, get off wielding extra-judicial power for the laws that govern us all is beyond me. Their charge—subject to players’ union acquiescence—is to enforce their league’s rules, which puts penalties for offenses such as on-field fights, gambling and the use of performance-enhancing drugs within their proper scope. That, plus negotiating multi-billion-dollar TV contracts and arranging team-owners’ meetings in fetching places, ought to be enough to kept them busy.

The fact is that while quarterback Vick’s dog-fighting business was illegal, and disgusting to many, it had nothing to do with football’s integrity or his ability to play the game. It’s not like he’s in the animal-shelter business. Similarly, receiver Stallworth never should be permitted to drive a school bus or even a cab, but—by me— he can catch as many passes as he’s able to if someone will hire him to do it.

Professional sports are entertainment, pure and simple, and to hold its practitioners to standards higher (or lower) than the rest of us makes the enterprises more important than they are. It’s also worth noting that our outrage tends to be short, and selective. What’ll happen with Vick will be what’s happening now with the baseballer Manny Ramirez, whose offense was against his sport: if Vick plays well he’ll be cheered by the fans of whatever team he plays for, no matter how others may react. Our desire for retribution runs a distant second to our lust for W’s.


skaps said...

I don't disagree with the column or any of your insights, Fred (I rarely do.) However, I think perhaps the more interesting question is why is Mike Vick being treated the way that he is?

Why is his crime, heinous as it was, worse in the eyes of the American sporting public than Leonard Little killing a woman while driving drunk, or the various and sundry pro athletes who father children across the country and take no responsibility for their progeny, or the fellas who smack around women (wives, girlfriends or other) who are 1/3 of their weight and size. What about the drunks, drug abusers and gamblers?

Ever since the Vick story broke I have been fascinated at the rage against him. I am a dog lover - big time - but I am a people lover, too, and it just seemed to me that the outrage was disproportionate. The man broke laws, he was a habitual, calculated law breaker. He got caught and served his time (many experts say MORE time than a "normal" person would've served for the same crime).

I say leave him alone. He is 29 years old and has likely more than half of his life ahead of him, and at least 4 or 5 on the gridiron. Give him the second chance the every person deserves. As a Bear fan I am precluded from rooting too hard for the Eagles, though I can't say I won't be hoping the Vick comes back clean, and that the media and public alike can forgive.

My hope is that one day I can point to Mike Vick in a game and show my son (who also also happens to be lightening fast and lefthanded) that there is a great FOOTBALL player that we can watch together - and then tell him that although Vick made some terrible mistakes, he came back and is doing great things both on the field, and off. In essence, that you can teach and old dog new tricks.

Mike Levy said...

Fred, They say when you're pissed off, wait a minute, count to ten, take a deep breath and give yourself some time before reacting. I did this, but it hasn't worked. So here goes...

I'm really disappointed in your Blog thoughts, especially those regarding Michael Vick. I'm aware of your dislike of dogs and believe this has clouded your judgement. But to do so in a public forum...well, I just don't think that's a good place to express your prejudices. It's not worthy of you or your talents.

Animals can't walk away from situations as can humans. They are trusting and true, unfortunately often to their detriment and death. Stupid mates, girlfriends, druggies and the like who choose to associate with high paid hoodlums, have a choice...dogs don't.

As a former Philadelphian, I'm disgusted with the Philadelphia Eagles. I hope that they lose every game they play from here on out. I understand after talking with friends in Philly about their decision to 'give Vick a second chance, cause he's served his time', was made by someone in the Eagles organization that has two sons in the pen, doing time for drug offenses. Whether this is true or not, having Vick on the team I formerly supported makes me sick.

I hope that someone in Philly feels as strongly about Vick as I do. For him, I wish him the same fate that he put his dogs through. Every bit of it. But I hope that his suffering lasts longer, much longer, before he meets his end. If there was a subscription to support death squads for animal abusers, I'd gladly donate.

Recently, we lost three most beloved pets in the space of seven months. They were provided with a loving, nurturing home and we miss their antics, their loyalty and their presence. They gave us so very much more than we could have ever given them.

I don't think you'd understand this. I really wish you could, but we all have our own sensibilities or lack of them. In fact, we missed them so very much, that in tribute to their devotion to us and our love for them, last week we adopted a rescued dog. There are so many of unhoused pets now, with the economy being what it is.

I remember in the movie Gandhi, a Hindu religious fanatic came to Gandhi in severe state of remorse after killing a Muslim in their civil war of 1947/48. The man was distraught because he found that the Muslim man he killed had a young son and felt tremendous guilt at having murdered the boy's father. He asked Gandhi what he should do? Gandhi answered that he should raise the child and then added, raise him as a Muslim. In this case Fred, I'd humbly suggest that you get a dog.

Mike Levy