Michael Vick. Perhaps that name, more than any other name, instantly creates a debate. Many look at his accomplishments on the field and respect him because of it; however, many people look at his dark side and all of the dogs that he hurt while running a dog-fighting ring called Bad Newz Kennels. So who is this Michael Vick? Is he a ruthless criminal who deserves to rot in prison, or is he this amazing football quarterback who is a human highlight reel? Michael Vick is more than just an ex-inmate or a quarterback, he is an American, and embodies everything it is to be an American. Other athletes have similarities to Vick’s story, but Vick’s story is unique unlike any other athlete’s. Vick tells us so much about America, and American culture. Americans are fascinated with sports and athletic talent, athletics are a way out of poor tough childhoods in America’s projects, the “American Way” is to never give up in achieving your goals, and America is a “land of opportunity” and second chances; Michael Vick represents all of these aspects of America and American culture; he is a sports icon, he grew up in a poor ghetto community where sports was a way out, he never gave up on becoming one of the NFL’s best players, and he was given a second chance to play in the NFL.
America’s Fascination with Sports
America’s Fascination with sports runs deeper than rooting for a team, or playing in fantasy leagues. Athletes are even role models for children. Our fascination is more of a cult following. When we call ourselves fans, we are associating ourselves with a specific group of people who share the same views. Because of America’s fascination with sports, there is the famous Raider Nation for the Oakland Raiders and Wing-Heads for the Detroit Redwings. Although Canadian, there also are the Green-Men for the Vancouver Canucks.
According to The New York Times article “Sports Psychology” by James C. McKinley Jr., avid fans of teams go through the same hormonal and physiological changes when watching games as the actual players do. Self-esteem is among one of the body changes associated with rooting for team. When a fan’s team wins, he or she has significantly more self-esteem and even showed signs of being more optimistic about their sex appeal following a victory (McKinley). Many psychologists have attempted to tackle on why sports can have such an effect on people. One of the theories suggests that rooting stems from a primitive trait from when humans lived in small tribes. The tribe’s warriors were representing their tribe. Arizona State psychology professor Robert Caildini highlighted on this theory by saying, “Our sports heroes are our warriors.” Psychologists like Caildini believe that athletes are the warriors, and fans are the other tribe members (McKinley). These “warriors” are the athletes that children look up to.
Avid fan groups like Raider Nation are known as “highly identified” fans. These fans are more or less die-hards who are not likely to jump ship when their team isn’t performing up to standards. They also insist on their team losing from bad luck instead of the opposing team being better. These also are the fans that experience the body changes during games (McKinley). Some fans are so tied to their teams that sometimes that team is what keeps them moving on through life. That is exactly the case for Gene Hamm who was injured at work and spent months at home. He said that watching New York Mets kept him out of going into depression (McKinley).
Being a fan is partaking in a multimillion-dollar institution by purchasing merchandise of a team of player; however, fans also affect athletic endorsement. Corporations promote their product by paying popular athletes to endorse their label. These athletes are often superstars of their sport, and companies pay them because of their talent. These athletes are also idols to children. Each year, nearly one billion dollars is spent by companies on athletes to endorse products (Athlete Promotions). Companies like Nike, Gillette, and Reebok sign players like Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter, and Sidney Crosby to endorse their product because “consumers tend to believe champion athletes” (Athlete Promotions). Meaning that consumers believe that if a successful athlete uses a product, then that product must work well. For example, since Sidney Crosby uses Reebok hockey gear and is successful, consumers tend to believe that Reebok hockey gear will make them successful also.
Now what does have this to do with Michael Vick? Well first, Vick plays one of America’s most popular sports, which is football. He also plays quarterback, which maybe the most recognized position in all of sports; however, since Vick is providing fans with such electric play, the fans continue to root for his success on the field. Due to his success with the Philadelphia Eagles, he is providing fans with the emotional roller coaster that comes with being a fan. Vick’s number seven Eagles jersey was the sixth most popular NFL jersey by the end of the 2010-2011 season (CBS News). It seems that fans tend to forget about off-the-field issues when a player has such success on the field. Winning is everything to fans. When Pittsburg Steelers quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, had his off the field issues fans were very skeptical; however, he hushed skeptics due to his ability to win games and championships. Because of Vick’s on the field success, Nike re-singed him in the summer of 2011 after terminating his contract in 2007 because of his involvement in dog fighting (CBS News). Nike said they did this because they support Vick’s rehabilitated image and how he is now a better person on and off the field.
To many, Vick is still seen as an idol and an inspiration. Vick’s game on the football field was described in the ESPN article titled “What if Michael Vick Were White?” as being “so badass, so artistic, so fluid, so flamboyant, so relentless – so representative of black athletic style” (Toure). Many kids, especially in the African American community who see Vick as a heroic figure, try to emulate Vick’s approach to the game. There is no question that on the field, Vick makes superhuman plays; however off the field he has an equally positive effect on America’s youth. Outside of practice and games, Vick voluntarily speaks out against dog fighting. His message hits hard for those who idolize him. A seventeen year old named Morgon Dukes used to fight dogs in the back alley of his Chicago community (Gregory). Dukes noted that when Vick was brought down for his involvement in dog fighting, the fighting in Chicago diminished. The fights stopped when Vick flew to Chicago to speak out about dog fighting to Morgon and other kids at the community center. Morgon Dukes said the fights stopped because, “This [Vick’s message] was coming from Michael Vick, our hero. We felt remorse. We felt sorry”(Gregory). NFL commissioner, Rodger Goodell, recognized that kids see Vick as a role model and told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “We need our kids to see that kind of success story. This young man has turned his life around, and he is going to contribute” (Toure).
Athletics Provide a “Way Out”
Many young boys and girls who grow up in the projects in America see athletics as a way out of poverty and gang life. These young aspiring athletes grow up watching professional athletes like Michael Vick and Torrey Smith, who both came out of the projects, dominate their sport. Because Vick and Smith overcame a tough childhood, these young athletes have hope that they too can make it out of the projects. Often times, sports are the only way out, and the only way to legally make a name for yourself in the projects. A childhood in the projects is a whole different life. Young men and women, sometimes not even teenagers, often have to support their family because their parents aren’t there. While this may mature the child, it also can very much hurt the child. Toure recently wrote an ESPN article titled “What if Michael Vick Were White?” he said,
“Too many [children] are left to define manhood on their own, so they gravitate toward the most charismatic and inspiring men in their world. Sometimes those men are gritty local sports coaches who teach them the value of hard work, but sometimes they’re ghetto celebrities who are unsavory role models with bad habits.”
What Toure is getting at is the fact that often times children turn to ghetto celebrities as their role models. This results in never really getting out of the ghetto lifestyle, which is what happened to Vick until he was sent to prison for dog fighting.
Some young athletes resist the gang life like Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith. Smith’s childhood in Colonial Beach, Virginia was anything but normal. He was the oldest of seven kids, raised by a single mother who worked two jobs and attended night school (Valkenburg). Smith was in charge of basically raising his siblings because his mother was away providing for the family. He was the man of the house at a very young age. Torrey would make microwave meals for dinner and change diapers. He even was nicknamed “The Microwave King.” During his childhood, his mother was constantly poor so Torrey’s future looked bleak; however, he would make it out okay because of football. Smith described his childhood saying, “There were certain times when other kids would be able to go and have fun doing something, and I had responsibility” but Smith loved the responsibility and he said it is something he “would not take back” (Valkenburg). Today, Torrey Smith is one of the best rookies in the NFL. NFL analysis marvel at his speed and talent. They also think he could be one of the best receivers in the game. Smith is vocal about his story because he wants to reach out to “the million others” who are in the same situation he was in (Valkenburg). Some children don’t take the same path at Torrey, but take the ghetto life; however, those who choose to hold on to the ghetto life later realize that it isn’t a good life to hold on to. Michael Vick learned that the hard way.
In Newport News, Virginia, Michael Vick was grew up in a ghetto culture that accepted dog fighting. Vick’s father, Michael Boddie, taught Vick football because it was a way out of the projects (Bleacher Report). Boddie would also be high off cocaine and drunk around Vick and his siblings. He would even set up the garage so Vick could have dog fights (Toure). To get away from the hard project life, Vick said he would “go fishing even if the fish weren’t biting” (Bleacher Report). Even with all of these distractions, Michael Vick shined in athletics.
Vick was given a scholarship to Virginia Tech where he ended up starting as a freshman, and placed third in the 1999 Heisman Trophy race. After his sophomore year he entered the NFL draft where he was drafted first overall by the Atlanta Falcons in 2001 (Bleacher Report). In Atlanta he was praised for his talent on the field. Everywhere there was number seven Vick jerseys. Nike also recognized Vick’s talents and launched the MV7 product line that consisted of apparel and shoes. In 2005 the Falcons and Vick agreed to a 130 million dollar contract extension, which made him NFL’s highest paid player (Gregory). However all of this wasn’t enough. Vick still kept close ties to his childhood ghetto friends that were bad influences. Michael and his old friends started up a dog fighting operation called Bad Newz Kennels. He would even fly to Virginia on his off days to check on the dogs and keep his ring running (Gregory). When Vick was charged with running a dog-fighting ring and sentenced to 23 months of prison, he finally realized he needed to cut all ties with the gang life and grow up.
Today, Vick is back in the NFL and plays for the Philadelphia Eagles. He is a rehabilitated man. He also happens to be one of the games best players once again. He now helps out ghetto communities by speaking out to stop dog fighting and is a positive role model for kids.
Never Give Up – “The American Way”
The stereotypical American is a tough, rugged individual who is hard working and never gives up. Never giving up is the quintessential American way. This has been America’s outlook on life since Revolutionary times when the Colonists defeated the mighty British for independence. We also see this American outlook in sports, and through sports athletes who never give up in achieving their ultimate goals. These athletes don’t let anything get in their way from poverty, to disease, to even jail time.
Boston Bruins goalie, Tim Thomas, is considered one of the best goalies in the NHL today. He is a recipient of multiple Vezina Trophies, which are given to the NHL’s best goalie. He also won the 2011 Conn Smyth Trophy, which is given to the MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs. To top off his collection of hardware, his name is engraved on the Stanley Cup when he led the Boston Bruins to win the 2011 Stanley Cup. However, his journey to the top of the NHL was anything but easy.
Tim grew up in Flint, Michigan where his parents didn’t have much money at all. They did whatever they could to keep Tim in hockey. They even sold their wedding rings to send Tim to goalie camp (Hurley). Thomas put together a decent collegiate career at the University of Vermont and entered the 1994 NHL draft. He was the 217th pick (Hurley). There were nineteen goalies selected before Tim Thomas. Only seven of them made it to the NHL, and two made All-Star teams (Hurley). Due to his unconventional playing style, teams didn’t really give him a chance to play. He bounced around European League and Minor League teams for almost a decade until finally the Bruins gave him a chance in 2006. Tim never looked back and took sole possession of the starting goaltender spot in his second year. At 35 years old, in his third NHL season, Tim recorded a 2.10 goals against average and a .933 save percentage (Hurley). Both of these stats were at the top of the league, earning him his first Vezina Trophy. Due to a hip injury, his 2009-2010 season was a set back and many thought he was a one hit wonder. He lost the starting goalie job and became a backup (Hurley). Just like Tim Thomas has always done, he didn’t give up. The following year his stats were back at the top, earning him another Vezina Trophy, Conn Smyth, and Stanley Cup. Like the “American way” Tim Thomas never gave up. He just kept on pushing to be the best.
One of the best stories of persistence is the comeback of Mario Lemieux. Mario was a superstar of the NHL playing for the Pittsburg Penguins. He is recognized as one of the best players to ever lace up skates. Rocky Bonanno, an NHL.com writer, wrote, “Nothing could stop Mario Lemieux. Not the toughest defensemen, not the best checking lines, not the swiftest forecheckers, not the most innovative coach. Nothing…not even cancer.” In the 1992-1993 season Mario was on record pace for goals and points when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease (Bonanno). Mario ended up winning the battle verse cancer, just like he won every battle on the ice. The night of Mario’s radiation treatment, Mario’s Penguins were facing the Philadelphia Flyers. He rejoined his Penguins that night and scored a goal and recorded an assist in a 5-4 losing effort (Bonanno). He did this after having radiation treatment just hours prior. When the season ended, Mario was right back on top of the NHL in goals with 69 (Bonanno). Like Tim Thomas, Mario kept fighting to get back to doing what he loved.
Prison was what Michael Vick had to overcome in order to make it back to the NFL. Vick didn’t only just make it back to the NFL; he also dominated and is now considered one of the best. In July of 2007 Vick was sentenced to 23 months of prison due to his involvement in a dog-fighting ring (Bleacher Report). Before this conviction, he was living a celebrity life and not taking football or anything seriously. He was a last in, first out player. He was often criticized for “skating on talent alone” (Price). While being incarcerated, Vick met with his mentor Tony Dungy to discuss how to be a better man, father, and athlete. Vick now wanted to do what ever it took to get back on top.
After being released from prison, the Philadelphia Eagles signed him. Vick now found himself watching extensive film, and being a student of the game (Price). He was doing what elite quarterbacks did to become the game’s best. Today he is looked up to by teammates, and he is also been talked about as being one of the games toughest, hardest working players (Price). Teammate Jason Avant described Vick’s story by saying, “We look up to him. The Bible says, ‘The righteous man falls seven times but he gets up again.’ He’s [Vick] getting up and trying, and it’s helping him and helping our team. Guys look at him not as a quarterback; we look at him as an inspiration. We look at him as a guy who has been through hell and back and he’s conquered it” (Price). Vick is one of the most knocked down quarterbacks in the NFL. Almost every play he is on the ground, yet every play gets up and keeps going. He lets nothing get in his way. Not even prison.
New Opportunities and Second Chances
Ever since European settlers discovered American, this land was known as the “Land of Opportunity.” It was where people could sail to and start a new life. It was also a second chance for some. Our prison system even is in place to offer second chances to people who deserve them. We see this same theme in sports: from players getting into legal trouble to players getting traded. There is often always a second chance and a new opportunity to prove yourself as an athlete. This is exactly what happened to Michael Vick. Michael Vick received a second chance at freedom and at the NFL following his stint in prison.
Before prison, Vick was living the dream. He was the highest paid player in the NFL. He had a huge Nike endorsement. He even was on the game cover of Madden 2004 (Gregory). Because he didn’t cut ties with his ghetto roots, he found himself in jail, bankrupt, and unemployed. Everything was taken away from his evolvement in running a dog fighting operation. It took prison for Vick to realize he needed to change. All he needed was a second chance at freedom and at the NFL. Luckily, NFL commissioner, Rodger Goodell, offered Vick a second chance at the NFL when he was released from prison.
Following his release the Philadelphia Eagles gave Vick a second chance to be on an NFL roster. Although many fans were outraged, Eagles owner Jeffery Lurie met with Vick prior to his signing to look for any signs of “faking” a regret (Price). Lurie later said to Sports Illustrated “Of course he [Vick] could say all the right things. That’s why I tried hard to read his eyes and expressions. You can read someone’s genuine empathy or warmth or regret; it’s hard to fake. Even the best actors you can see though. I could really see an amazing regret, a terrible regret” (Price). Even Lurie who is a dog lover recognized that people could change and gave Vick the chance he deserved.
America’s prison system is set how it is to rehabilitate the convicted and give them adequate sentencing. He served his time, found a job, and even does community service by speaking out against dog fighting. Time magazine writer, Sean Gregory, described Vick’s legal issue as “how the system should work.”
After starting quarterback, Kevin Kolb, was injured, Vick was penciled in as the starter. Needless to say, he didn’t look back. He tore up the NFL and was dreaded by defenses around the league. Mike Ditka described Vick’s 2010-2011 season “Like a man playing with boys” (Price). He put together career year and was in the running for league MVP. He won Comeback Player of the Year for the 2010-2011 season. Vick still continues to be one of the best players in the game. Michael also puts most of his free time into speaking out against dog fighting. He is continuing working to rehabilitate his image on and off the field as being a positive idol (Gregory). Earlier this year he signed his second 100 million dollar contract to stay with the Eagles. Now that his life is back on track, friends and family “say he seems ‘free’ for the first time, unburdened by the distractions” (Price).
Love him or hate him, Michael Vick says everything about America. There is no denying that the man is more than just an athlete. Every athlete has his or her own story, and every athlete tells us something about being American. Sports today are one of the largest parts of American culture. Americans are fascinated with sports, athletics offer a way out of the projects, athletes never give up just like the “American Way,” and America is the land of second chances and new opportunity. What makes Vick’s story unique is the fact that he contains everything there is to be American. He may never get the credit he deserves, but one thing is for sure, and that is there is no arguing with what Toure wrote in his ESPN article, “Michael Vick has become heroic.”