I was home in Philadelphia last Thursday when the news broke that my beloved Eagles had signed Michael Vick to a two-year contract. This came just four months after his release from prison on charges related to dogfighting. Local reactions were immediate and impassioned; people picketed the Eagles' offices, called for boycotts on team sponsors, and returned their season tickets, which some estimate to have between a 400- and 4,000-year wait. "Hide Your Beagle, Vick's an Eagle" was a popular rallying cry on the nightly news.
But others lined up at sporting goods stores to see if they could get one of the first Vick jerseys printed on Eagles green, nearly salivating as they described the new life Vick might breathe into the offensive strategy. While Philly fans are known for their passionate, vocal responses—both positive and negative—to their teams, it seems like since Thursday, even people outside Philadelphia and even the sports world have had something to say about it.
The big question is whether Michael Vick should ever be allowed to play football again, especially in the nation's premier league. He's had his chance, and he messed up. Big time.
But this is a story about second chances. Michael Vick wants one. The Eagles are giving him one. Will we extend him the same courtesy? How do we decide who deserves a second chance, and what form that might take?
This all hits close to home for Eagles head coach Andy Reid, who took time off two years ago when his two sons were arrested for drug charges. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on Reid's introduction of the newest Eagle at a press conference, which was uncharacteristically personal in tone:
"I'm a believer that as long as people go through the right process, they deserve a second chance. Michael has done that …. He has some great people in his corner, and he has proven that he's on the right track." Reid also admitted that his personal life influenced his strong feelings about Vick, referring to the arrests of his two sons … "I've seen people that are close to me who have had second chances that have taken advantage of those …. It's very important that people give them an opportunity to change, so we're doing that with Michael. The other side of that is we're getting one of the best football players in the league."
Even Donovan McNabb, whose security as the Eagles' starting quarterback is threatened by a new superstar QB who has held the position with another team, has vocally supported Vick's return to the Eagles. He writes on his blog that he brought the idea to Reid first, advocating for his friend and future rival, because he believes the situation will give Vick the best support to move on and practice the lifestyle changes he says he wants. "I want to see him continue to grow as a person, spend time with his family and re-establish himself as a leader on and off the field," McNabb writes. "Due to the nature of what happened and the attention it has received, it may not always be easy for him but he seems up for the challenge. Fortunately, with a tremendous individual like Tony Dungy in his corner, he will have the support he needs."
Dungy, the former Indianapolis Colts coach and a committed Christian, sat by Vick's side at his first Eagles press conference. Since retiring in January, Dungy has worked with imprisoned young men as part of his Christian outreach program. Of Dungy's visits to Vick's cell, the Los Angeles Times reports:
"I talked to him about where he wanted to go in the future," Dungy said. "That's one of the things my dad always used to say to me when he was alive …. And that's what I kept asking Mike. 'Where are you going to go from here?'
"And the other thing I asked him was where the Lord was in all this. We talked about him growing up and having that side, that Christian background, but really getting to the NFL and feeling like he was his own guy. Somewhere in the course of all this he realized that he had left that spiritual side. When he kind of described that to me and the fact that he needed to get back closer to the Lord, that's when I said, 'I'm going to stay involved in this. I'm going to help you.' "
When Vick's agent approached the Eagles to discuss a future relationship, Reid said Vick brought with him a wish list that included no guarantees of playing time or a lucrative salary (though there is that), and hopes for a coach that would be a mentor and teammates who would support him as he tries to turn his life around.
We can look at what Michael Vick did with horror—as well we should. We can insist that we would never do such a thing—we probably won't. But it's just not that simple. We are not Michael Vick, and we don't know what it's like to be surrounded by a culture that celebrates and normalizes the things he did. Dungy acknowledged as such, saying, "Dogfighting is just one situation. I've dealt with guys, and they don't see the harm in it. But eventually the light goes on and they change. That's part of coaching, that's part of being a parent, that's part of helping young people grow into adulthood."
Vick's brush with the law forced him to do some growing up. As with many celebrities, NFL stars growing up in the spotlight can get trapped in an adolescent mindset. In his 60 Minutes interview, Vick said:
The first day I walked into prison, and he slammed that door, I knew the magnitude of the decision that I made, and the poor judgment, and what I allowed to happen to the animals. And, you know, it's no way of explaining the hurt and the guilt that I felt. And that was the reason I cried so many nights. And that put it all into perspective …
I let myself down, not being out on the football field, being in a prison bed, in a prison bunk, writing letters home, you know. That wasn't my life. That wasn't the way that things was supposed to be. And all because the so-called culture that I thought was right, that I thought it was cool. and I thought it was fun, and it was exciting at the time. It all led to me lying in a prison bunk by myself with no one to talk to but myself.
Animals inspire great passion in people, and it's difficult to see beyond the anger at what Vick did to them. But the more I read and listen and think about who Vick has become, and what he's now asking us to do, the more I cannot ignore the call to forgiveness.
Vick paid the sentence asked of him, now admits his wrongs, and is seeking help in the form of Christian counsel. He's already lost his money and his reputation; now he can pursue a career in the only field he knows. It if will help him turn his life around, I'm ready to offer my forgiveness and support.