Should Michael Vick Return To The NFL?

Barbershop guys Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Lester Spence, and Pablo Torre comb through the some week's controversial headlines. This week, hear feedback on the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., President Obama's push for Health Care reform and whether or not convicted dog fighting felon and former NFL star Michael Vick should returned to the football field.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michael Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are freelance writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, political science professor Lester Spence and Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre. I may jump in here or there, but for now, take it away, Jimi.

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Freelance Writer): Hey, nice, Michel. Fellas, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Civil Rights Attorney; Editor): Hey, hey, man, what's up?

Mr. LESTER SPENCE (Political Science Professor): Hey, what's up?

Mr. PABLO TORRE (Reporter, Sports Illustrated): How's it going?

Mr. IZRAEL: Oh, man, strange week. Pablo, my man, welcome to the shop.

Mr. TORRE: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

Mr. IZRAEL: First time in. Professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested this week on a charge of disorderly conduct at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and even though the charges were dropped, the whole story had the Internets going nuts, and even the president had to check in. We got tape on that?

MARTIN: We sure do. It actually was the closing question at his press conference the other night. So here's what he had to say. He was asked by Chicago reporter Lynn Sweet about his take on this whole episode. This is what he had to say.

President BARACK OBAMA: I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry, number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when - when there was already proof that they were in their own home. And number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionally. And that's just a fact.

Mr. IZRAEL: Wow, that's deep.

MARTIN: I just want to point out one thing. We played just a shorter version of the clip. You can see the whole online, of course, and pull up the transcript for yourself, but he did start out by saying that Professor Gates is a friend of his, which is true, and he also said, I'm not acquainted with all of the facts, which is true. He did have a couple of the facts a little bit wrong. But there you have it. That's what he said.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. You know what? And not for nothing, this event, it occurred on the 16th of July. Now, I'm not trying to stick any elbows into my Harvard peeps in the shop, but you know, Lester Spence, the good doctor, I'm looking at this thing, and I probably should mention that I would for The Root, which is backed by the Washington Post, but Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the editor-in-chief. I should probably mentioned that.

But I wrote a piece about this for The Root, and I was wondering if this was more of a case of a clash of egos and not so much a clash of racism. Well, how do you see it?

Mr. SPENCE: Yeah, there's definitely an ego thing going on, but there's also what I'd say is a race and class thing, right? So the question that people are asking is: What would have happened had Henry Louis Gates been white? And I understand that question because something like this happened to me the first day of class last year, and I blogged about it, right?

Long story short, I went to a department event for the department of engineering, got some Coke from them. They thought I stayed a little bit longer than my welcome, and in the course of kicking me out a place I was already leaving, they basically harassed me. They threatened to call security on me. I told them I was a professor. They didn't hear me. I was talking to them, trying to diffuse the event. They didn't hear me. So when campus security finally came, it was two brothers, and they recognized what was going on, so they chilled me out.

So I understand that, you know, the racism. What would have happened to me in that instance had I been white or older instead of black, right?

Mr. IZRAEL: Hmm.

Mr. SPENCE: But the question for me isn't so much that but what would've happened had Gates been black and working class or black and poor, and how would've Gates responded had the victim been black and working class and black and poor? We wouldn't be caring about this, and Gates himself wouldn't be caring about this. I mean, he's written a whole…

MARTIN: I don't agree with you. I don't understand why you say that.

Mr. SPENCE: I'm saying that class works here, that the reason that we're caring about this is not just because it happened to a black man but because it happened to Gates. And if Gates would've had any other background, if he would've just been a guy in Cambridge, this type of stuff happens to guys in Cambridge all the time, racial profiling.

MARTIN: So what? I mean, so if Rosa Parks had not been well-spoken and highly dignified, would her efforts to achieve attention have worked? No.

Mr. SPENCE: No. That's the point.

MARTIN: If Martin Luther King, Jr. had not been dignified and well-spoken…

Mr. SPENCE: No, no…

MARTIN: …would his advocacy have worked? So what is the point?

Mr. IZRAEL: So that is point. So you're making my point…

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. IZRAEL: …for me. So what we have to do is, first of all, get beyond flashpoint instances of racism and deal with, like, real racism. But, in the course of dealing with real racism and real structural disadvantage, we have to deal with class. To the point where we can talk about when some kid is racially profiled, but he doesn't act the right way or his pants are sagging. We act the same way if - the same with Louis Gates.

MARTIN: If you're colleagues at Hopkins…

Mr. SPENCE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …or in the Academy…

Mr. SPENCE: Yeah.

MARTIN: …are more likely to pay attention to this issue because it was you, so what? Isn't that - so what?

Mr. TORRE: Right, and…

MARTIN: Go ahead Pablo.

Mr. TORRE: I think it's also important also as a reminder, I mean, in the post-election stage now, I think it's important that, you know, the rest of the country who isn't as well informed, that isn't as familiar with what goes on with racial profiling, with struggles on the purely man-to-man level between police officer and citizen, see that this happens still. And I think the fact that it was Henry Louis Gates, and it was a Harvard professor is in fact, in my opinion, ancillary because it sort of sheds that spotlight on the fact that if it could happen to this guy, it can happen to somebody else.

And it's still going on. And I think even if you need that bit of celebrity, that bit of class to get that subject back into the forefront, I think that's a pretty - useful thing in the discourse today.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right, and this is Arsalan, you know, being the civil rights lawyer here in the Barbershop, I think it does prove that we are not in a post-racial America. You know, I think that for a lot of Americans who are tone deaf to racial issues, you know, who now say, well, you know, we elected a black president. So, you know, we don't have these issues to deal with, you know, the case of Skip Gates, you know, very resoundingly points out that we do in fact have to deal, you know, with these issues of racism, racial profiling, and everything related to civil rights. You know, from a legal perspective what was interesting to me is when the police officer went inside the house and asked Professor Gates for his identification.

When he said that I live here, I'm a Harvard professor. He went and he gave him the identification and then the cop basically took him outside and then arrested him for quote "tumultuous behavior." Now what's interesting to me is after he verified that this was indeed his house, he then led him outside because he knew that he couldn't arrest him legally inside his own house. That once he was able to step outside he was able to, you know, slap the cuffs on him. So my question would be, if it was a white professor who had verified his identity within his own house and who might have been talking some smack back to the police officer, would the cop…

Mr. IZRAEL: Ah, that's important.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: …then have walked outside…

Mr. IZRAEL: That's important - get back to the point, man, that's important.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: …and then, you know, slapped the cuffs on him, you know, once they walked outside.

MARTIN: I think there are a number of factors that are important here. One, is the relative ages of the individuals. I mean, I think a lot of what this has -seems to have to do with is respect and who - to whom it is owed and deference.

Mr. IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And to whom it is owed.

Mr. IZRAEL: The law is on the police officer's side in this particular case. And I'm going to tell you why. Because disorderly conduct is a really subjective, really arbitrary charge.

Mr. SPENCE: Right.

Mr. IZRAEL: That anybody can fetch for coughing heavy or cussing too loud. And young black men - and black men of all ages in this country should probably know that you can't scream on the pole, B. You not - it's not going to happen. You cannot talk back to the police or else you are going to jail. Now, they might not teach you that at Harvard, but it's real talk.

MARTIN: So Lester, just briefly, since you also study this issue as a political science professor.

Mr. SPENCE: Yeah.

MARTIN: What would stop this, in your view? What - so we don't keep having these conversations, whatsoever.

Mr. SPENCE: Yes. It's not just a legal issue, it's a political issue, right? So police work for us. And we had a conversation about this last week on another subject. Police work for us. So what we need are more citizen review boards. And citizen review boards with teeth. Because it's not just about racial profiling. It's about a whole range of practices that go to the extreme, where you're talking about police brutality and murder and then minor issues where you're just talking about stop and search and seizures.

Mr. IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Jimi, since you wrote about it, you have any final thought on that?

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah, I mean, that's what I said basically. I think there needs to be more non-business contact with the police. I mean, it seems like every time we're meeting the police, you know, we are in the back of the car. And by that time, you know, it's a little too late to be building bridges, I think.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I am speaking with journalists Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Pablo Torre, and Professor Lester Spence in the Barbershop. Back to you, Jimi.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. You know, also this week, President Barack Obama did a presser. And, you know, he's trying to bring his case for health reform to the people and put the shoe on the bipartisan bickering in Congress. Now Lester, I know you saw it. What do you think?

Mr. SPENCE: I don't think he drove home the message. So, one challenge he's had, nobody has really dealt with it, is that everybody's been framing this as an issue of cost, when what this really is or should be framed as, is an issue of investment. Fifty percent of all bankruptcies occur in part because of health expenses. U.S. spends 4.3 times more on health care than on national defense. What we need to do is move the discussion towards looking at this as an investment. It makes us healthier, it makes us more productive, more innovative. And as far as the job thing, you know, we're talking about jobs, 30,000 health professionals are going to be required to man the program that Obama's talking about putting in place.

He can also use this to talk about job creation, right? So if he talks about job creation and investment, it kind of neuters some of the criticisms he's facing.

Mr. IZRAEL: A-train, you're the resident Obama supporter, right? I mean, help be out here.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, I think Lester brings up a good point, in terms of framing this as an investment issue. That, you know, at the end of the day this will help cut down our deficit in the long run. I do agree with Lester. I don't think he was able to hit home the point that this is currently gridlocked in Congress and I think that that's something that he needs to hit on in the future.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what, not for nothing. He was in my neck of the woods yesterday, at my alma mater, Shaker Heights High School. Stand up, Red Raiders.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Stand up, stand up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: And, you know, he's trying to - he's still trying to get this hard sell to us. Pablo, what does he need to say to Joe Average, to get them to agitate the Congressman?

Mr. TORRE: What Arsalan said was exactly, I think, on target. One of the huge problems with this entire issue is that it's horribly inscrutable. I mean, no one really understands the process, what exactly is going to happen, what this proposal for means. Obama's speech, and hopefully it will change in the future, is to be less abstract, you know, in that speech oratorically, he was talking about the red pill versus the blue pill. I mean, what does that mean for the average American? That's a matrix reference…

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

Mr. SPENCE: Right.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right, you're right.

Mr. TORRE: …more than anything else, I mean, but the average American takes that…

Mr. IZRAEL: That is (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRE: I appreciate "the Matrix" myself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRE: But at the same time, I mean, what are we taking away from that? Did we actually learn anything, in terms of a practical kind of plan of action? And because it is so gridlocked, it does fall on citizens to rally and sort of be active members of this instead of just kind of floating along and taking the same rhetoric…

Mr. IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TORRE: …that we don't really understand in the first place.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Maybe he needs a Morpheus in his life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRE: Where is Laurence Fishburne?

Mr. IZRAEL: Anyway, former NFL star, convicted dog fighter Michael Vick is free at last, after pleading the final part of a 23-month sentence for federal dog fighting conviction. This week, Commissioner Roger Goodell could have a decision on whether to reinstate Vick soon. Now, I don't know, I'm a dog lover and, you know, I do okay with sports. But I don't know, A-train, you always give us the over and under, bro.

MARTIN: Can I just - can I just do my routine discloser here, you know, I cannot participate in this conversation because my husband is one of Michael Vick's attorneys. So, I'll just be here.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Fair enough.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thank you. But hold on A-train, Pablo, my man. So, should he be reinstated?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I mean, my opinion personally and apologies to all those associated with his legal team, is that he should not be.

Mr. SPENCE: Oh.

Mr. TORRE: Wow.

Mr. IZRAEL: Wow, oh guys, wow.

MARTIN: Wow.

Mr. IZRAEL: And please…

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I mean, my question is, let's use this as a moment to sort of reevaluate and say, what do we want out of the National Football League? I mean, pretend for example, you walk into work one day and your co-worker Mike is not there, right? And you ask, oh, where is Mike? And the answer comes that he has been jailed in federal prison for running a dog fighting ring. I mean, you don't expect Mike to be there next year. And obviously he has a right to work, he's a right to find other work, find other jobs.

But to me, the NFL because it is so valued, it is so important to us culturally, I think you draw a hard line and you stick with it. And that does not mean that you allow a drunk driver like Leonard Little, for example, to pass by. But you push back the line in terms of what's acceptable and not. And I'm a conservative in that regard.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: This is A-Train here and I got four words, let the man play. Honestly…

Mr. IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: …I'm going to have to take my man Pablo to task and not only highlight the case of Leonard Little but you look at the NFL and its history has allowed gamblers like Arch Lichter(ph) to come back and play. And then, people who commit vehicular homicide while intoxicated like St. Louis Rams defensive end Leonard Little, who took the life of another human being. You know, this man Michael Vick has served 23 months in prison and has done his time. It has nothing to do with the sport of football. Now, you know, I'm the biggest football fan there is out there but as long as Michael Vick keeps his head clean, you know, doesn't get another pet and doesn't get into anymore…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: …legal trouble.

Mr. IZRAEL: Nice, cat fancy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: You know, you know what…

Mr. SPENCE: He's the next cover of the Cat Fancy.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: You know, I - we said this a few months ago…

Mr. IZRAEL: Right…

Mr. IFTIKHAR: …you know, if he joins the Oakland Raiders, how gangster would a black and silver, number seven Michael Vick jersey be?

Mr. IZRAEL: To your point, A-Train, I mean, we do let people work after they've served their time or done their penance. Matthew Broderick killed two people in a car accident. Nobody is trying to stop him from acting. He's still gets work, so…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: …I mean, to your point, why dump on Mike Vick?

Mr. TORRE: Well here's my - this is Pablo again. My point is, you use this cultural moment. It's been talked about so much, to sort of reset. And, yes, is that unfair under the sort of the perspective of precedents, yes, that is unfair to Mike Vick. But, I think the NFL and this is sort of my activist kind of argument, should reset and sort of say, we're not going to allow this type of behavior, whether it's dog fighting. And, you know, one of the other things is that Michael Vick did not wake up one day and said, I'm going to fight a dog, and then got caught for it. This is something he was running. This was an elaborate, you know, thing, holds it on his own property, that was bank rolling. It's not as if, you know - I'm not going say that's better or worse than drunk driving and homicide…

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Or drug trafficking?

Mr. TORRE: …or drug trafficking, certainly. But it is something that was conscious and that he did. And he did lie to his team owner when he's asked about it, so…

Mr. SPENCE: So…

Mr. IZRAEL: So…

Mr. SPENCE: So, Pablo, this is Lester. So, I just want to be…

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. SPENCE: …so you're saying that in this cultural moment, we should actually increase unemployment?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRE: You know…

Mr. SPENCE: That's - that's what you're saying, right? I just wanted to be sure.

Mr. TORRE: In a manner of speaking, yes, but at the same time, Michael Vick I think is not your average unemployed person these days.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right, I'm going to…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: …I'm going to also - I'm going to deal with that point too. Because, you know what else Spence, there are people out there that want to be Mike Vick. I mean, there are young kids who look up to Mike Vick as a role model…

Mr. TORRE: Exactly, exactly.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: …and I think to that piece, I think we have to kind of think about it really hard. I mean, me personally as a dog lover, I'm thinking, no, he needs to go work at Wal-Mart.

Mr. TORRE: You know, we're not asking, you know, should Michael Vick be allowed to, you know, be the host of the Westminster Dog Show. We're saying, let him play in the National Football League.

Mr. SPENCE: And then…

Mr. IZRAEL: L. Spence, L. Spence, get the last word.

Mr. SPENCE: Yeah, and let me get back to this cultural moment. So, this is the cultural moment where we need to figure out whether we're going to rehabilitate or we're going to continue to incarcerate.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

Mr. SPENCE: So, you talk about other options. He was born and bred to be a football player. This is his means of income. He serves his time, then what do we as a society do with him? We should not discard him, not in this moment. We have to send another message to the NFL.

Mr. IZRAEL: Doctor, there is work at the Post Office, last I checked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: You know, what it's a dog eat dog world, but, Michel…

MARTIN: Oh. Ow.

Mr. IZRAEL: Back to you.

MARTIN: You're going to leave me on that note?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Where is the love? Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist, who writes for Theroot.com. He's also a presidential fellow at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Pablo Torre is a reporter for Sports Illustrated and he joined us from our studios in New York. Lester Spence is a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. And Arsalan Iftikhar is the founder of themuslimguy.com and a civil rights attorney. And they both joined us in our studios in Washington. Gentleman, thank you all so much.

Mr. IZRAEL: Peace.

Mr. SPENCE: Thank you.

Mr. TORRE: Thank you.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yep, yep.

MARTIN: Now you just heard our guys in the Barbershop sound off on Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., the president's health care pitch and whether former NFL star Michael Vick should get a second chance or if he should find work elsewhere. Now we want to hear from you. Do you think the Barbershop guys got it right on the news of the week? Were their cuts too sharp or just sharp enough? To tell us more about what you think, you can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That number again 202-842-3522. Please remember to leave your name. Go to npr.org, click on TELL ME MORE and blog it out. And that's our program for today.

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