Look, I know that what former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick did. He financed and allegedly took great pleasure in running a dogfighting ring. And I know that now that he's been reinstated by the NFL and cleared to play in October, there will be a firestorm of controversy about why professional football would allow such a terrible person to play for them. (Hint: the answer starts with his QB skills and ends with money.) Will I be making the argument that since the NFL is lousy with felons, one more won't hurt? No. (Though, in fact, the NFL has quite a few convicted felons, which is kind of weird in a profession that makes its players sign a code of conduct.) And, you won't read a word in defense of Vick on the grounds that he only hurt animals and, as such, did not commit much of a crime. We should have zero tolerance for extreme cruelty and the torture of anything—including pulling wings off flies and setting ants ablaze with magnifying glasses.
But, I am going to go ahead and defend Michael. Vick paid for his crime and therefore, as far as I'm concerned, deserves a second chance. If you're one of his critics who believe no punishment is too harsh (except the death penalty, I suppose), think about the price Vick paid for running a dogfighting ring. He lost his freedom, his job (including, obviously, all his endorsements), his worldly possessions, his good name, and the esteem and respect of his fellow football players. I don't know about your tolerance for pain, but that seems like an apt punishment to me. In terms of reparations, he's put a million dollars in a trust for the lifelong care of the dogs and, should he forget, even for a second, about what he did, he can head over to the National Geographic Channel and watch DogTown: Saving the Michael Vick Dogs. And the Humane Society has announced that it will be working with Vick to discourage dogfighting in the African-American community. Have no fear—I will not be defending Vick on racial grounds, though I can just say that I Googled "why do black people hate dogs?" and got 17.5 million hits. Oh, wait, I need to say one more thing … I have never met a single black person who loves dogfighting. It may be popular among some African-American folk in the rural South or the inner city, just as it's popular in pockets of Brazil and England. But it isn't a "black" thing anymore than serial killing is a "white thing."
But, of course, some feel that Vick is a monster incapable of reform. This, unsurprisingly, is the opinion of PETA, an animal-rights group known for its rabid defense of animals. (Though, for some reason, it has no problem objectifying female humans through its naked campaigns featuring "policymakers" such as Khloe Kardashian and Pamela Anderson.) Upon Vick's release from jail, PETA wrote in to the Huffington Post to say:
"PETA withdrew its offer to do a TV spot with Michael Vick last winter when a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report on Vick's dogfighting activities revealed that he enjoyed placing family pets in the ring with fighting pit bulls and that he laughed as dogs ripped each other apart. PETA believes that this revelation, along with other factors in the report, fit the established profile for anti-social personality disorder (APD), and we called on Vick to have a brain scan to help confirm this. People diagnosed with APD are commonly referred to as 'psychopaths.' They are usually male, prone to lying and manipulation, often take pleasure in cruelty, and cannot feel genuine remorse, which frequently leads to recidivism."
I don't know if Vick has APD. And I certainly don't know if he's going to re-offend, but then again, neither does PETA. But I do know that PETA, with its statement, has shown itself incapable of the empathy and forgiveness toward humans that it so readily gives to animals. In fact, it seems to have completely forgotten that humans are animals too. And I think that's a mistake, and not just from a PR perspective. If PETA wants animals to be treated better, then it should make statements that encourage compassion and forgiveness. A rising tide lifts all boats—it's a cliché, but it also happens to be true. By further humiliating Vick and calling him names, it just encourages people to be small-minded and mean-spirited, not to mention self-righteous and holier than thou. And how does that change people's minds? I can't imagine it does—if anything, it creates a scenario where people reject everything PETA stands for, including the end to animal testing and inhumane treatment of animals in factories and farms, just because they're offended by PETA's unyielding disapproval and lack of consideration. Of course, that scenario already exists since PETA has become very famous using extreme tactics—such as dressing up in KKK costumes for its "Are Animals the New Slaves?" campaign and handing out pamphlets entitled Your Mommy Kills Animals! to children. This could have been a golden opportunity to bring more people onboard, but instead it just cemented its reputation as a loony fringe group with a big advertising budget.
I think the Humane Society got it exactly right when it released a statement about Vick's involvement in its campaign to stop dogfighting:
"We were very involved in criticizing Vick for conduct which we found reprehensible, and we strongly supported law enforcement and judicial action that led to his incarceration. I don't think anyone was tougher on him than we were. But the goal was never the continued punitive treatment of Michael Vick. The goal has always been to eradicate dogfighting in America and around the world."
Isn't that humane? That's the spirit of compassion that shows people how to open their hearts and minds to other people and, by extension, to animals. We should be cognizant, also, of the young urban African-Americans who are watching this situation—we need to show them that there are second chances in life. By continuing to pummel Vick, we imply what many of them already believe to be true—that the world does not think they are worthy of redemption. Vick now has the opportunity to be the kind of role model the NFL really needs. Forgiveness and the power to transform our circumstances are supposed to be at the heart of what it is to be an American. Ray Lewis—a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, and one of the best in the NFL—was convicted of obstruction of justice in a double homicide in 2000. But he has mended his reputation, in part, through his Ray Lewis 52 Foundation, which helps many disadvantaged children in Baltimore get the personal and financial support they need to succeed. We should give Vick the same chance. Do it for the animals, if not for the children.