Those that don’t know me very well are often surprised to learn that I am an avid NFL fan. Of all the things I’ve been, punk rocker, goth, IT nerd, ending with middle-aged parent and Tea Partier, the NFL doesn’t exactly fit the profile. But I’ve paid the rights to my soul to DirecTV for their NFL Sunday package so that I can watch games on an embarrassingly large Panasonic plasma HDTV.
I am also deeply involved in animal rescue and have been for years. I have financially supported several local grass roots organizations: Forgotten Cats of Delaware, Dumpster Cats, the ASPCA, Tri-State Bird Rescue, and the Delaware Humane Association. I have also opened my home to dozens of stray animals over the years, finding homes for those that I could but assuring all that arrived that their suffering was over; they would never again go hungry or sleep alone in the cold. If I could not find them a forever home elsewhere, they would join my pack of misfits and mongrels. I laugh and tell people that I belong to the “Dog of the Month club” but that’s an exaggeration; on average my wife and I rescue a dog about every other month and we’re about due for our next one anytime.
Three years ago I wrote the following about Michael Vick:
I’m no saint, Michael. I’ve done stupid things in my life just like anyone. But I’ve never done anything as bad as what you’ve done. My parents raised me to avoid doing those things – killing for sport and torturing for kicks. I’m no sadist, and seeing a sadist stand there as the camera shutters whirr away really pisses me off.
I hope you turn life around, Mike, but if you don’t I won’t lose any sleep. You can then rot the rest of your life having tasted success while knowing you will never, ever taste it again.
I wasn’t just a Vick hater; I wanted to see him completely and utterly destroyed. I was beside myself with rage at a man who could do what he did to dogs, and a system that limited his punishment to less than two years in jail. There is something unique about animal cruelty that sets it apart from all but a handful of crimes except child molestation or abuse. I believe that it is because the only thing that separates it from cruelty towards children is the fact that the sadists are afraid they’ll get caught if they do to a child what they do to a dog. Both child and dog are innocents and incapable of protecting themselves, and I believe that the line separating an animal torturer from a child abuser is a thin one, and one that she or he will eventually cross if not stopped.
Michael Vick was stopped by the full force of the Law before crossing that line. He was stripped of his fame and his fortune and sent to prison, and even today I stand behind what I wrote 3 years ago. Should he have been punished more severely as some have argued? Should he have been banned from his passion and his livelihood forever?
I understand why people believe so. I sympathize with their fury at seeing his face on the cover of Sports Illustrated and his name hung on banners inside stadiums. Michael Vick had everything that most do not – money, fame, athleticism – yet none of that stopped him from drowning struggling dogs in pails of water. As Isolde of Avalon writes:
People want Vick to be punished more because his crime was not one of passion or bad judgment or desperation. It was one of repeated, cold-blooded, needless cruelty inflicted by a millionaire who had everything against a bunch of innocent animals whose nature is to be loving and faithful companions for human beings. That is why people want “more”.
I understand that, and it would be much easier for me to agree with him (or her – come Isolde, forget the nom de guerre and use your name. It’s 2010.) than to accept the nagging suspicion that the Truth is much more complex than that.
Michael Vick admitted his crime and went to prison. In every interview he has not attempted to dodge the severity of his crime or his responsibility for it. He has followed the letter of his sentence without complaint. He has listened to his mentors like Tony Dungee and his former and current coaches – and by doing so he has forced me to answer this question:
Is it possible for a man to atone for his crime no matter how heinous its nature or how honest his atonement?
As an alcoholic I did terrible things to others. As a recovering alcoholic I have done my best over the years to make amends where possible for these actions. Now nothing that I did was anywhere near the same magnitude of what Michael Vick did, but who are we to judge whether redemption is possible for one man but not another? That sounds like Supreme Diety turf to me.
Over the past three years I have viewed everything Vick has said and done through the lens of suspicion, just as every ex-con or recovering addict understands the games played by other cons and addicts. Everything he says is worthless; only his actions add credibility to them. Vick followed the program laid out to him by the courts and by his mentors. When the Human Society president Wayne Pacelle spoke well of Vick’s efforts to end dogfighting, I took note. I respect the The Humane Society because they don’t get to cherry pick the easily adoptable dogs the way some so-called “no kill” shelters do, and they are often on the front lines of cruelty, working in the inner cities where the affluent are afraid to go to rescue or adopt pets.
How many people haven’t done something that they need redemption for? How many have never experienced the shame and disappointment of finding yourself in a deep well dug with your own hands and struggling to see the light above? How many have never struggled upward against a heaviness that sucks you down as you reach upward towards the light? How easy it must be for them to not feel the icy fear in the pit of your stomach with each loose stone that pulls away at your fingertips.
For Michael Vick the well is deeper and the light dimmer, but does the possibility of redemption exist for Michael Vick? Do the screams of dying dogs echo in his dreams the same way as the sobs of loved ones do in mine? Does redemption exist on a spectrum or as a binary event? Again, these are questions only Michael Vick or theologians can answer.
Before I heard of Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels I had no idea that dog fighting existed in the inner city. In the Midwest where I grew up it was known as a backwoods “sport” practiced in the Ozarks or in “Deliverance territory” in the Deep South. Vick’s case shone light on its prevalence in the inner city, and has helped authorities and animal rights activists to roll it back there.
It pains some people when good things come out of evil actions. Of course the end should not justify the means but shouldn’t we accept that Vick’s case has helped the cause of ending animal cruelty? Vick’s success on the gridiron only furthers that cause by keeping the issue in the public eye and funds flowing to animal rescue and support groups. Would these groups and their cause be doing as well with a broken Michael Vick in prison or in a half-way house somewhere?
When I sobered up there were people who wanted me to pay for my actions as well. I followed the 12 Steps and did the best I could, but for some it wasn’t enough. They never forgot my mistakes or forgave me for them, and that’s something that I will always have to live with. But sitting on the loveseat next to me as I write are a chihuahua mix and a beagle, the former found abandoned as a pup in a box without his mother and the latter running around alone in my field on the coldest day of the last Winter. They are warm, well-fed and loved. Would they prefer that I was ruined to pay for my mistakes?
Over the past 10 years I have helped raise a decent kid, supported a wife through medical school and residency, helped her through the loss of both her parents, and overall built a decent life for my family and dozens of stray animals – knowing throughout it all that one mistake would cause it all to evaporate. Should I have sacrificed those things and worn a hairshirt in payment for my mistakes as some even today want me to do?
What kind of payment is that anyway? What are the goals of people like that? In the case of Vick, what do they want him to do if not electrify the football field every Sunday that he steps on to it? What more must he do to redeem himself in their eyes?
True redemption is one of the most honest and beautiful things around. There are no more lies and clarity in abundance. The humility it grants endows one with a taste of serenity that a junky or criminal will never savor. Redemption replaces chaos with peace, selfishness with selflessness, wrecklessness with caution. It is a force of good in the world that can spread from the redeemed to transform the world around him or her.
I hope that Michael Vick’s redemption is real, but only Michael and his mentors know for sure. In the meantime I will not forgot his crime but I will cheer him on. I want Michael Vick to succeed to be redeemed and transform the world around him. I want to believe in the promise and possibility of Redemption.
UPDATE: Maybe the Eagles should reconsider this after their shellacking at the hands of the Vikings last night.
Eagles Pick Squeaky For Defensive Coordinator