Sports

Michael Vick: The Rorschach Test

Michael Vick walks off the field after losing to the Green Bay Packers in January 2011. i i

Michael Vick walks off the field after losing to the Green Bay Packers in January 2011. Al Bello/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Al Bello/Getty Images
Michael Vick walks off the field after losing to the Green Bay Packers in January 2011.

Michael Vick walks off the field after losing to the Green Bay Packers in January 2011.

Al Bello/Getty Images

I've been fascinated by the responses to Will Leitch's GQ piece on Michael Vick that went live this morning. To me, it was a very insightful look not just at Vick, but at the challenges of being a "handler" to a guy with a big personality.

Whether you do or don't believe that Vick's statements undermine his claims of remorse (I do, but many don't), I doubt it was the intention of his seven-person (!) PR unit that he say something like, "What did I do to anybody?" I doubt they'd have been any more thrilled with the fact that, when asked during an appearance where he explicitly presented himself as a role model for at-risk youth whether he was "mad" about being sent to prison for participating in dogfighting, he made it clear that he would say one thing about that in private and another in public where reporters are listening. In other words, he publicly acknowledged that his statements to the media shouldn't be taken to represent his thoughts. Don't get me wrong — there's nothing wrong with thinking that, but those seven people might not want you to say that.

You can lead a guy to the perfect PR strategy, but you can't make him reliably follow it, because he's human and he's constantly being watched. That's where the piece was so successful for me. It doesn't mean none of the PR positioning is true, it's just that no matter how disciplined an athlete is, it's hard to stick exactly to the script.

(One other note: I also heard from those who don't like the fact that there's commentary from Leitch interspersed with the profile; to me, the fact that he explicitly uses the first person and acknowledges his own reactions renders that fact inoffensive. The commentary and opinion are overt, not covert, and I don't mind combinations of reporting and commentary as long as you admit you're doing it.)

As Leitch points out himself, Vick's sentence was very harsh if you compare it to other dogfighting sentences. Certainly, his reputation has been more difficult to recover and his behavior more notorious and closely followed than was true in some cases involving athletes whose offenses were against people.

I think the piece only says as much as it says, really — it's not that there's no actual remorse, even though I have to admit it was my initial reaction, which has been tempered somewhat by conversations with other people, that there wasn't much. It's that a team of handlers and Nike reps has created a narrative that has been enormously successful in rehabilitating Vick's reputation, and while that recovery may be a good thing, that underlying narrative only partly tracks with what Vick himself seems to believe. It's not that there's no humility, but the humility is different and more complex than the story he's paying people (and being paid by people) to present.

It's worth reading, I think, even if how it reads to you may depend on where you come down on this already complicated story.

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