September 29, 2009

You might wonder if Michael Vick had to check “the box” on his job application—you know, the box where you have to declare whether or not you are a convicted felon. But whether he had to declare his background or not, the label has loomed over him from the moment he walked out of Leavenworth federal prison after serving 18 months of a 23 month sentence for overseeing a dog-fighting operation.

On August 13, following months of speculation and debate about Michael Vick’s future, the Philadelphia Eagles announced that it had signed him to a contract. Vick, who was drafted first overall in 2001 and whose 10-year, $130 million contract was the largest in football history, lost everything following his conviction: his contract, endorsement deals and his wealth. He filed for bankruptcy in 2008. Yet, before the ink had dried, the Eagles’ decision to sign Vick elicited widespread condemnation, especially from animal rights activists throughout the country.

Questioning his “moral character” and “judgment” Ed Sayres, the CEO and president and CEO of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), issued a statement lamenting the fact that Vick had not earned a second chance through “contrition … and hard work”. Similarly, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who has been at the forefront of anti-Vick protest, asked, “What sort of message does this send to young fans who care about animals and don’t want to see them be harmed.”

Such statements, which circulated for months on political blogs, elicited widespread debate on whether race factored into the case and the public reaction.  

Race clearly plays a role in the discussion of whether Vick should have been allowed back in the NFL. A poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports prior to Vick’s reinstatement showed that 35 percent of people supported his return to professional football, with 39 percent opposed (the remainder were either unsure or had never heard of Vick). But 82 percent of Blacks supported his reinstatement. Nearly half of whites opposed such a move. 

The racial differences here are not surprising given the ways in which race operates in Black America and within the criminal justice system.

As Vick’s release date approached PETA stepped up the pressure on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell not to reinstate Vick, after the NFL suspended him indefinitely following his arrest. In a letter sent to Goodell in January, PETA President Ingrid Newkirk described Vick’s behavior as that of a “psychopath.”  

“The question about whether Michael can change−unfortunately the prognosis for anti-social personality disorder is abysmal with behavior as aberrant, as abysmal as Michael’s,” she wrote. “There is scant reason for optimism.” 

Defending Vick, Rev. Jesse Jackson argued that his predicament reflected a broader problem. “One of the big issues of re-entry is that when people come out, can they get gainful employment?” Jackson told the New York Times. “He has a right to compete. If he doesn’t make the team, then he can’t play. If he can, let him work.”

In the end, Goodell was compelled to reinstate Vick. He told USA Today, “Everyone makes mistakes, but he has to show that genuine remorse in his ability to be a positive influence to correct the things that he did wrong publicly.”

While PETA has shown a propensity toward racialized sensationalism, including a protest at the Westminster Dog Show in which members dressed like the Klan, its opposition to Vick should be examined within a broader historical context.   

The extensive media coverage and public outrage, and even the high-profile prosecution—rare in dog-fighting cases—follows a pattern of demonizing Blacks in popular culture.  

Often portrayed as “corrupting and pathological,” Blackness is often used as the explanation for social, cultural, and national problems, notes Joy James, a professor of Political Science at Williams College, in Shadowboxing: Representation of Black Feminist Politics. “What is forbidden in American culture often seems to be projected outward onto the outsider or scapegoat,” she concludes. In this sense, Vick has become “a bogeyman for strengthening animal cruelty regulations either as policy and/or as practice,” said Jared Sexton, professor of African American Studies at University of California Irvine, in an interview with ColorLines.

Kelvin Monroe, a professor of Ethnic and Religious Studies at Metropolitan State University in Minnesota, told ColorLines, “America’s structural insanity is indexed by the fact that while Blackness is too often criminalized and pathologized it is, at the same time, America’s ‘adorning supplement:’ the object of desire and enjoyment. It is from within this space that PETA discursively operates.”  

Sexton likewise argues that PETA is trying to use Vick, just as transnational corporations have sought to capitalize on his celebrity in years past to sell products, to galvanize public support, and energize its agenda. Vick’s Blackness “makes PETA more willing— and certainly more able—to label him criminally insane and to demonize the milieu of his dog-fighting ring.”  

The outrage directed at the decision to reinstate Vick and the claims he hadn’t earned a second chance attests to widespread trends and attitudes in the criminal justice system.

In some states, legal restrictions prevent released prisoners, those who purportedly paid their debt to society, from a wage range of jobs including: barber, plumber, eyeglass dispenser, nurse, real estate agent, billiard room employee, embalmer and septic tank cleaner. Social stigma and employer prejudices also present deep barriers to employment, leaving the vast majority of the formerly incarcerated unemployed one year after their release, according to Devah Praeger, professor of Sociology at Princeton University.

Prior to Vick’s comeback, Dave Zirin wrote in The Nation: “Whether you believe Michael Vick got a raw deal or think he deserved every last day of those two years in Leavenworth, people should collectively agree to pressure the owners of NFL teams to sign this man. Not just because he is good enough. Not just because he deserves any kind of a career comeback. But because if Michael Vick can’t get a shot at redemption, if he is forever tainted, then where does that leave the millions still under the thumb of Prison, USA? It’s time for Michael Vick to get his second chance, for everyone who never even got a first.”  

But the reinstatement of Michael Vick doesn’t point to a shift in the criminal justice system or a moment of colorblindness. Vick’s case instead demonstrates that despite the demonization he has experienced, he will still ultimately play football on Sundays.

His case shows that a celebrity of color, especially one who is associated with the hip-hop generation, can’t escape the stigma of Blackness, which made him a useful target for animal rights activists and others. Yet, his fame and value as an NFL commodity remain the principal reason why his criminal record didn’t keep him from getting his old job back. His experience shows how wealth and celebrity status are often the only things that can trump structural racism.

Michael Vick is one of the lucky ones, because in spite of the demonization he has experienced, he will have the opportunity to earn a living. The same cannot be said for too many of his Black peers.


David J. Leonard is an associate professor in the Department of Comparative 
Ethnic Studies at Washington State University. His work focuses on race and 
popular culture.

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