Is It Time To Forgive Michael Vick?

President Obama thanked Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeff Lurie for giving convicted felon Michael Vick a second chance. Buzz Bissinger was horrified when the Eagles signed the notorious quarterback, but with Vick excelling on the field and speaking out against animal cruelty, he has reconsidered.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This past week, President Obama called Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeff Lurie, ostensibly to talk with the major Democratic Party donor about his decision to install wind turbines and solar panels at the team's stadium. But Lurie told Sports Illustrated the first thing the president talked about was Michael Vick, the convicted felon who served 21 months in prison for charges connected to dog-fighting. He's now a candidate for most valuable player in the National Football League. Lurie said the president spoke passionately about giving ex-prisoners a second chance. He did not go so far as to pardon Michael Vick but Buzz Bissinger, for one, is ready to forgive him.

Originally horrified when the Eagles signed Vick, Bissinger writes in the Daily Beast he was wrong. So how about you? Have you changed your mind about Michael Vick; 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Buzz Bissinger is a Pulitzer Prize winner, author of "Friday Night Lights," and a sports columnist for the Daily Beast. He joins us today from CBS affiliate WPHT in Philadelphia.

Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. BUZZ BISSINGER (Sports Writer): Hey, thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And you say this change of heart may leave you looking like a duplicitous turncoat.

Mr. BISSINGER: Well, I went round and round and round on this, and I have thought about this probably far longer than I should have. At the beginning of the season - and particularly before the season, when Michael Vick went to his birthday party in Virginia Beach and there was a shooting, and one of his co-defendants got shot, I felt and said publicly, that's it. The Eagles should cut him. It just showed kind of terrible judgment, that he had not learned.

Then, look, like most people - almost by default, he gets into the first Eagles game. He looks good. He looks different than he has before. He looks poised. He certainly has matured on the football field. He gets better, he gets better, he gets better. But I really feel, look, I can't get inside his head, but the way he talks, the way he mentors at schools on animal brutality, I believe there is a change - and admissions, not just about what he did wrong, but admissions about what he did as a player when he was with the Falcons. I never read the playbook. I didn't know any of the plays.

And the thing is, unlike a lot of athletes, he had to grow up. This was it. Many athletes never grow up. They live in a bubble. They're shielded. They're spoiled. Vick did do 21 months at Leavenworth. He went bankrupt. He lost tens of millions of dollars, and this was it. He had to change. And I think the change will last, and because of that, I do think he should be forgiven and not just be seen as, you know, just a wonderful football player now having a great season.

CONAN: Forgiven, even though you say the bamboozle factor - the over-under on the bamboozle factor was 50-50?

Mr. BISSINGER: Well, you know, look, you never know. I'm sure part of it is the fact that his handlers or PR person, or the Eagles PR people, are saying, Michael, you got to do this; you got to do that. And it is a judgment call on my part. I do see a sincerity in the way he talks. What impressed me most, you know, there was the famous Giants game when the Eagles come back and score 28 points. What impressed me most was the way he handled the interviews in the locker room. I, frankly, thought he would get overexposed by the amount of publicity he's gotten. He is not - I think there's a humility that's real and, look, the great thing about radio is, no one ever remembers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: No, of course not and...

Mr. BISSINGER: So if I'm wrong, I'm wrong, and I'm really delighted that obviously, President Obama read my column, and he agrees. But I will tell you this: The reaction to the column was almost uniformly negative...

CONAN: Really?

Mr. BISSINGER: ...which means to me - yes, in Philadelphia, 60 percent -they just did a poll that came out today, based in Philadelphia. Sixty percent believe that Vick should be forgiven. But outside Philadelphia, it is clear he has not been forgiven - and never will be.

There are a lot of people who have said, look, he's having a great season. That's fine, but I will never, ever forgive him for not just killing the dogs, but the sadistic brutally that he showed. So around the rest of the country, Michael Vick has a ways to go. And I don't think he'll ever reach the majority of people.

CONAN: Would any of this have come up if, in prison, Michael Vick had lost that marvelous athletic edge that gives him the ability to be such a wonderful player? Yes, even had he matured, if he'd lost his quickness, if he lost his arm strength, if he was now a third-string quarterback, if he was - well, you know, not out of the game?

Mr. BISSINGER: Absolutely not. I mean, as I say in the column, the thing about athletics is that performance always does trump character and excuse character. Look, if the Eagles were, you know, six and eight or six and nine, instead of atop of the division - having clinched at least the playoff berth - if they were having a mediocre season, I agree. The sentiment about him would be very different. But that's the thing about athletics. Performance does count. But I just feel that there has been a change.

And as I say, I think it's a forced change. I think he - other athletes should be so lucky, frankly, to have gone through what he went through. Because, as you know, they're shielded. They're shielded from the age, really, of 5 years old on. You know, athletes - glom onto them. They don't have to do homework. They don't have to do anything. They don't have to do class. All they have to do is play sports. That's what Vick was like.

But you know, you face down, you know, the fear of your soul when everything is taken away and when you realize, this is it. And, you know, luckily, frankly, he did not lose his athletic skill. In fact, as a quarterback, it has gotten appreciably better. So that does go hand in hand. There's no question. But he did pay a price. He did.

CONAN: And is he still paying a price? I wonder, the fines that were levied, has he paid all those off, or is part of his salary going to pay those back?

Mr. BISSINGER: You know, I don't know. It's a good question. I mean, I think he may still be paying the fines off. I mean, I know he filed for -for bankruptcy. Look, what he did was awful. And the fact that he - that a dog is involved - and I have a dog, and I love a dog and everyone has said that - it doesn't matter. It was the sadism.

You know, look, he electrocuted dogs. He hung dogs. But he did go to prison. He's lost, really, upwards of $130 million. His contact -contract with the Falcons was canceled. He lost millions in endorsements. He filed for bankruptcy. I'm sure he still has fines to pay off. It has not been an easy road for him. And I think the poise and dignity, yes, that he has shown is very, very impressive. I am impressed with it. And it took me a long time to sort of separate performance, you know, from what I perceive as his character.

CONAN: Buzz Bissinger, Pulitzer Prize winner, author of "Three Nights in August," as well as "Friday Night Lights" - 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Have you changed your mind about Michael Vick?

Jennifer's calling from Hartford, Connecticut.

JENNIFER (Caller): Yeah. We were driving back from a - kind of a Philadelphia household after the big game last week. And Michael Vick's name was mentioned a lot. And then they heard the NPR - kind of blurb for the story today, and my kids asked what dog fighting was, and they were horrified. And then we also mentioned that Vick wants a dog. And as a dog family, they thought about it, this 7-year-old and 10-year-old. And they said, I bet you he'll be the best dog owner there is. He sounds like he's become a good guy. And I kind of agree with them. I wasn't sure that I would when we first started the conversation.

CONAN: Hmm.

JENNIFER: But he really has matured and has really made huge leaps as far as, you know, from even just kind of an athlete's perspective, as well as a human being perspective - even, you know, even in a family where we couldn't even stand to say his name a couple, you know, a couple months ago. When he was signed to the Eagles, we swore we wouldn't watch the team. And now, you know, we're not cheering him because they had such a great game. We're cheering him because he's making some really good choices lately - enough that, you know, a little, 7-year-old girl would say something like that, like, what a great dog owner he's going to be now; I hope they give him one.

CONAN: I think...

Mr. BISSINGER: Hey, listen. You have to do me a huge favor. Will you post thes comments on my Daily Beast column? Because I'm getting killed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BISSINGER: But I think you phrase it - I actually think it's wonderful that your kids think that way. I think that shows a decency, and I think that shows a maturity in them. And I think you're right. I mean, Michael Vick, you know, probably would be a great dog owner because, as I say, he has faced, you know, God in the eye. And as you point out, his athletic performance, that was the first turning point, because it showed a maturity he never had. Michael Vick, when he was a football player both at Virginia Tech and the Atlanta Falcons, thought: I can always get by on my athletic ability. He did not look at the playbooks. He did not learn plays. He liked rolling out. I'm going to run, or I'm going to pass it 75 yards to show off my arm. If I hit the receiver, I do. If I don't, I don't.

With the Eagles, he is a pocket passer. He is showing discipline. And I think when he talks to kids about what he did and how it was wrong, I really do think it's real. I think there has been a change in character.

CONAN: Jennifer, please drive safely.

JENNIFER: We will. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call. Here's an email from Lane(ph) in Minneapolis: I believe everyone deserves a second chance and a chance to be forgiven. But I don't think it's right to elevate someone who's committed such an inhumane and sadistic crime into a position where he or she is a role model. I find it deeply troubling that Michael Vick is back in a position where young people idolize him.

Mr. BISSINGER: Look, I don't - young kids may idolize him because he's a great, great athlete. And young kids - much like Jennifer's kids - may not know the full extent of what he did. I don't think people are saying that he's a role model, you know - like Tom Brady, for example. But I think he should be forgiven. I mean, I think people who have killed someone in first-degree murder, and have served their time - whether it's 10 years or 20 years or 25 or 30 years - and get out, should be forgiven as well. I think the people who are impressed with him, really, more are adults, because they have seen a change in character.

And Neal, as you know, everyone can be transparent. Everyone can be an actor. But I don't - I just don't feel that in Vick. And I have been around a lot of athletes, and I can tell when they're going through the motions, when they're just simply talking the talk because they have to or because they've been told to - much like, kind of, Mark McGwire.

I don't - you know, Mark McGwire still believes in his heart he did nothing wrong. I only took steroids, but it did not affect my performance - I mean, that's absurd. That's absurd. I don't see a man, a Michael Vick, denying the hideousness of what he did. And I think that's a big step forward. And as I say, he's gotten a ton of publicity, and I thought he would get overexposed and implode and say something terrible, and all of it would go to his head. And I have not seen any of that. I have not seen any of that.

CONAN: You can go to our website at npr.org. There's a link there to Buzz Bissinger's piece from the Daily Beast, "Time to Forgive Michael Vick."

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Let's go next to Natasha, Natasha with us from Waverly, Iowa.

NATASHA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

NATASHA: Hi. I am - I'm 17 years old, and I'm just saying I'm happy to be on your show. I have been an avid listener for like, four years now, so...

CONAN: Well, thank you.

NATASHA: I'm a younger person, but I am out on my own right now. And I am a pit bull owner, as well as a dog owner in general. And that has little to do with my opinion right here - is that I'm appalled that anybody could forgive Michael Vick. He did horrible, horrible things to dogs. And the fact that this guy can say that he would forgive a murderer - that person took someone's life. They took someone's life.

And convicted felons can't even get jobs at McDonald's. Why is it OK for Michael Vick to just go and make $100 million a year after he destroyed the lives of a bunch of dogs, hurt a bunch of his fans? And I was a Michael Vick fan - not anymore. And I won't ever forgive him. And I just can't believe that it would be - that someone would make it OK that he - even though he went through and he did his time - so what if he did his time? He hurt a bunch of people. And you shouldn't be able to go back out and live like he was living before. That's not fair.

He should have to deal with what he did. He made that decision, and he made it over and over and over again. And I just think it's ridiculous that you guys - or not that you guys - but that it's OK for him to come back in and do what he was doing before. I just, I can't - I can't imagine the way...

Mr. BISSINGER: Should he...

NATASHA: ...the government...

CONAN: Should he, Natasha, after he served his time - he's been released from prison. Should he be in that class of people who can't get a job at McDonald's?

NATASHA: No, he - I'm not saying that he should, but why is it - I'm -OK, I'm not a convicted felon, but it was hard enough for me to get a full-time job, to go out and live barely scraping along. I just don't think that it's OK for him to be able to go out and make millions of dollars. He should have to start over at square one. He's a convicted felon. He shouldn't just be able to go back and be like, oh, I'm OK now. I went to prison, and I can tell people that I'm OK. So as long as I act like I'm OK, then I'll be able to have a dog again. And no, he should not be able to have a dog, because that's ridiculous. He's going to slip right back into where he was, especially if he gets a pit bull.

CONAN: And I believe the condition of his release does not allow him to own a dog. But...

NATASHA: Yeah, he shouldn't. No, he's not ready for another dog, not ready to be back in the NFL. Sure, he's a good football player. So what? I'm a good waitress. If I go and commit a crime, I don't expect to be welcomed back into my job with open arms.

CONAN: Natasha, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

NATASHA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

NATASHA: Yup.

CONAN: Here's some emails, this from - Shangaliza(ph), excuse me: I think America has a long way to grow in forgiveness.

This from Tanya: Maya Angelou said when someone shows you who they are and what they are capable of, believe it. That's the first thing I think of when I hear Vick's name. Again, that's from Tanya.

And this, from Jane in Baltimore: I live in Baltimore. We have Ray Lewis, who is hated everywhere except Baltimore. I believe Vick should be given another chance, as with all ex-cons, but only one chance.

Would you agree with that, Buzz Bissinger?

Mr. BISSINGER: Well, I obviously agree with that. And I think the last caller was impassioned, and I understand that. Look, he did do time. He is starting from scratch. You know as well as I do, he didn't play for two years. If he didn't have his skills left, he would have been cut in a second. Is he lucky, as a convicted felon, to have a trade that can -where he can make a lot of money? Yes. But that is his trade. So he is starting over, and he has made good on it. And he has made good on being a better athlete. So he did do his time. I mean, this was the sentence he received. If he - maybe he should've received more, but he did do his time. He did pay a price. He lost all his money. And I am impressed with him, as is our wonderful president.

CONAN: Buzz Bissinger, are you going to be covering the game tonight?

Mr. BISSINGER: I won't be covering it, but I'll be watching it. Eagles by 21.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Buzz Bissinger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author of "Friday Night Lights," sports columnist for the Daily Beast, joined us today from CBS affiliate WPHT in Philadelphia.

Tomorrow, guest Political Junkie Ron Elving joins us. A week before the new Congress arrives, Republicans want to open the House floor to electronic devices. Who's going to tweet first from the floor of the House of Representatives? Stay with us for that.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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