Vick Reinstated, But Who Will Play Him?

Quarterback Michael Vick has been reinstated by the NFL after serving time in prison for running a dog-fighting ring. Sportswriter Dave Zirin says that although Vick's been reinstated, there's no guarantee a team will risk the protest and publicity of signing him.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Michael Vick, once the best-paid player in the National Football League, is looking for another chance. Vick served nearly two years in federal prison for his part in a dog fighting ring, which included killing dogs. He's expressed deep remorse and says he leaves Leavenworth a more mature man.

But any team that signs him risks protests and bad publicity. Sportswriter Dave Zirin argues that fans should demand Michael Vick's return.

What do you think? Should Michael Vick get his second chance? Our phone number is 800-989-8255; email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Dave Zirin is here with us in Studio 3A. He's the author of the book, "Welcome to the Terrordome," and sports editor for the Nation, where his article on Mike Vick's return appeared today. Nice to have you back on the program, Dave.

Mr. DAVE ZIRIN (Sportswriter, The Nation): It's great to be here, and great transition from blue dogs to Vick, by the way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: All right. Michael Vick served his sentence. He's been conditionally reinstated by the National Football League. What do you think prevents him from signing with a team?

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, it's not because NFL owners are all secretly members of PETA, I'll tell you that right now. And it really is a question because it's also not because the quarterback play in the NFL is at such a high level that there wouldn't be a place for him on a roster. I mean, this is the only quarterback in NFL history that were rush for a thousand yards. And it's also not because NFL rosters are squeaky clean. I mean, there are people in NFL rosters who've been convicted of vehicular manslaughter, who have been convicted of spousal abuse. And yet, Michael Vick is somehow the great pariah.

I mean, I really do think it comes down to cowardice. It comes down to, will NFL owners step up and say, you know what? I know there may be a PR battle here, but the Humane Society says Michael Vick should get a second chance, Roger Goodell says Michael Vick should get a second chance. And you know what? Maybe we have an obligation to our fans that he should have a second chance as well.

CONAN: Well, you say he could play football quarterback in the National Football League. Nobody's seen him play for two years.

Mr. ZIRIN: Nobody seen him.

CONAN: And you mentioned that he did rush for a thousand yards one year and that's better than any other quarterback. But rushing is not the first prerequisite for a quarterback, and his arm has never been his strongest suit.

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, his arm has always been the strongest. The accuracy question is something.

CONAN: Well.

Mr. ZIRIN: The guy can throw 75 yards on a line.

But I'll tell you something about this whole thing. I write that fans should demand that Vick at least get a shot. Because you're right, if he doesn't have the skills, he shouldn't play. No one's talking about charity here. But should he get that shot - and I think fans should demand it because it's about a bigger issue than just Michael Vick. It's about at what point do we say someone has paid their debt to society.

We live in a country that has the largest prison population in the world. Are we going to forever consign people who've been to prison as being unable to be able to compete in the workforce for jobs that may have the ability to perform?

CONAN: And it's not like you're asking him to. Well, in any case, he served his time. He's paid his debt to society, as they say.

Mr. ZIRIN: Two years in Leavenworth. People, think about that for a second.

CONAN: Nevertheless, owners, well, they do risk some back - you know, protest if they sign him.

Mr. ZIRIN: There's no doubt about it. I mean, you could have a situation where people are bringing stuffed dogs to games, playing "Who Let the Dogs Out?" over the loudspeaker. It's becoming a big distraction. Everyone's so worried about distractions.

But at the end, what the question that has to be asked is, will Michael Vick make my football team better? And you know what? NFL players have been on Twitter tweeting that teams should take a chance on Michael Vick. That's very rare in the NFL. The NFL has non-guaranteed contracts. It has a certain passivity that's been bred among players, and yet players are stepping up and saying give the guy a chance.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Dave Zirin, who covers sports for The Nation. 800-989-9255; email us: talk@npr.org.

And we'll begin with Jason(ph) calling from Fort Wayne, Indiana.

JASON (Caller): Hello, there. How are you doing today?

CONAN: Very well. Thank you.

JASON: Excellent. Yeah, I'm just curious. I mean, many people out there have so many arrest records and can barely get jobs at convenience stores or McDonald's. Why is Michael Vick going to get millions of dollars after having a felony arrest record? I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: All right, Jason.

Mr. ZIRIN: See, I think Jason sort of makes my argument for me because I think we need to move beyond the culture where somebody, because they have a felony arrest on their record, cannot get a job at a convenience store. That's bizarre and it's actually hurting states around this country.

This is about such a bigger issue than the NFL. I mean, we have such incredible labor power that's being cooped up in our prisons, such incredible brain power that's being cooped up in our prisons. Do we really want a society of recidivism where people are just in a revolving door back in the prisons, or do we want people to feel like when they've paid their debt to society, they get another chance? Michael Vick will be this issue writ large.

CONAN: And I think to be fair, after the first three quarters of a million dollars, which is admittedly more than most people make at McDonald's, anything else he would earn would go to his creditors.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yes.

CONAN: He went bankrupt while he was in prison.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yes. Another reason why he's filled with regret, I'm sure.

CONAN: And let us get David(ph) on the line. David with us from Tulsa.

DAVID (Caller): Hey, how are you doing? I have a prediction, and that is that the - Dallas Cowboys would hire Michael Vick for several reasons. One, that Jerry Jones has been known to take a chance with people like Pacman Jones, Michael Irvin when he was going through his troubles, Terrell Owens. So, I think he might take a chance.

And number two, the Cowboys desperately need a backup quarterback - if you remember the fiasco when Brad Johnson had to come in for Tony Romo. And I think what they'll probably try to do is some kind of a - public service announcements and such, maybe with a shelter, involving Michael Vick with a dog shelter - just show true remorse. And really, if he does have true remorse, that'll show it.

And finally, I agree with your guest's commentary about people deserving a second chance. So, I'll listen to your response off the air.

CONAN: All right, David. Thanks very much.

Mr. ZIRIN: That was a great call not just because he agreed with me, but there's a third reason why the Cowboys might make sense. And that's because they are opening a $1.5 billion stadium right now. And the economy is in such rough shape, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones can't even find a corporate sponsor to put their name on the stadium. Michael Vick, if nothing else, would guarantee headlines and guarantee rear ends in the seats.

CONAN: And the Cowboys have so much trouble generating headlines.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let me ask you also, there is a new trend in the NFL that started really last year…

Mr. ZIRIN: Yes.

CONAN: …the so-called wildcat offense. I'm old enough to remember the single wing, and it looks like that. But nevertheless, Michael Vick, hard to find a quarterback better suited for the wildcat.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yes. For listeners who don't know, the wildcat means that your quarterback takes the snap and is immediately in a position where they can run down the field. I mean, running is such an important part of the wildcat that the Miami Dolphins, who really reinvigorated it, had Ronnie Brown, their running back, play quarterback in that set. But to have somebody like Michael Vick do it, I mean, that could be a very powerful weapon even if he's only 80 percent of what he was.

CONAN: And this is something that's usually trotted out just, well, a few plays a game, maybe two or three series a game, not the whole game. The regular quarterback goes the rest of the way. Anyway, now, let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Donald(ph). Donald with us from Boerne in Texas. Donald? And Donald seems to have left us.

In any case, here's a email from Ryan(ph) in Alexandria, Virginia. No way. There are consequences to bad choices. The true test of his expression of remorse is how he lives the rest of his life without pro football. I will boycott whatever team makes the grossly inappropriate move to hire him.

Mr. ZIRIN: Okay. Why that emailer is wrong, for a couple of reasons: The first is that, I mean, to pay his debt. Like we're saying, two years in Leavenworth and going bankrupt, that's a heck of a debt to play(ph). The second thing is that Michael Vick has already made commitments to do work, to teach young people about why they shouldn't get involved in dog fighting. He's already made commitments to do work with the Humane Society. He's already made commitments to do all kinds of work to actually help people get away from cruelty to animals and that lifestyle. Will Michael Vick be more of a voice for these young people if he is a pariah from the NFL, or if he still has that platform in the NFL? I mean, people should ask themselves that if they really do care about the animals here.

CONAN: Let's go to Tory(ph). Tory with us from San Francisco.

TORY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

TORY: What I feel like is not being talked about is the fact that our sports players in our society hold a certain moral obligation to the fans because they are held up as idols for young people. And that's why their name is so easily associated with goods and they're paid for their name and they are able to, you know, build on their reputation. And that's why they spend so much time with their PR on their, you know, volunteer activities - like, look at who I am as a person - to build a fan base. And so, do we really want millions of screaming fans cheering for Michael Vick? And I would say no. And I know your guest would say, look, he's paid his debt to society so he should be able to move on.

But the reality is, if he was caught in a ring of passing around child pornographic pictures, would we ever want him in a situation where millions of screaming fans would scream his name and say he's a great person, regardless of the fact that he's paid his debt to society?

Animals are defenseless, animals are unable to make it by themselves and they rely on human compassion. And someone who would abuse that for not only his own emotional excitement but for financial gain in a dog fighting situation for a long period of time, isn't something like vehicular manslaughter that happens one night on accident and someone's convicted of vehicular manslaughter.

CONAN: But don't you…

TORY: It's a long pattern and practice of the absence of morality. And that's why he shouldn't be put in a position where the world cheers for him regardless of the fact that he doesn't have to stay in jail and he could go on and find new jobs. I'm not saying he has to stay in jail for the rest of his life.

CONAN: Tory, some would say the comparison to child pornography is exaggerated, to say the least.

Mr. ZIRIN: And very unfair. But it's interesting, I mean, Chris Rock had this line where he said Michael Vick must be in prison watching Sarah Palin on TV saying, I'm in jail, why? I mean, you're talking about somebody who was shooting wolves from planes. We do have a very weird, selective ideas in our head about what constitutes to cruelty to animals.

CONAN: One is legal and one is not.

Mr. ZIRIN: That is true. But is one cruel and one not? Are we going to play morally relativistic games when it comes to this? I mean, in stadiums around the country…

CONAN: He wasn't convicted of being cruel. He was convicted of violating the law.

Mr. ZIRIN: A federal law that was passed only a few months earlier. I mean, that's the other interesting thing - part of this. The federal statute was a very new law when it was passed. I'm not defending Michael Vick. And oftentimes when people think - when I talk about this, people think that I hate dogs or love dog fighting, I'm at home eating French Poodle fajitas. That's not the case. I love dogs. I'm just saying the guy spent two years in Leavenworth. And frankly, if we - do we want kids cheering for Michael Vick? Well, if Michael Vick is working with the Humane Society, maybe we do.

CONAN: All right. Tory, thanks very much for the call. We're talking with Dave Zirin of The Nation about Michael Vick. He's been reinstated by the NFL under certain circumstances. Should he be allowed to play? You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go to Mike(ph). Mike with us from Reno.

MIKE (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MIKE: Yeah, I love the way your guests have been commenting today. It's just been really awesome. I just wanted to say I love the way your in-studio guest is talking about how unfair it seems like a lot of people are being toward Michael Vick. He's - yeah, he did something definitely wrong and hopefully, his remorse is not remorse out of the act of being caught. If he actually is remorseful and he's still a good quarterback and he's making amends, why not get out there and play? The fans will decide at some point. You know, they're like a - I think, you might have made a mention yesterday with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, if he'd of gone on to a losing season, he'd of probably got dumped eventually. But he had a winning season - and a lot of winning seasons - and everyone loves him now.

Mr. ZIRIN: It's very - it's a very good point. And I do think that the bigger issue is something we should keep in mind. I mean, we are in a country where every day, people are getting out of prison and looking, not just for that second chance, but maybe sometimes for that first chance. And whether we like it or not, athletes are role models. I mean, we could say we disagree with gravity. It's not going to make a difference if we fall out of a plane.

I mean, people are going to look at Michael Vick and how people respond to him and whether the NFL gives him a chance, and it's going to tell people something about where we are as a country with regards to people who have paid their debt to society.

CONAN: Thanks, Mike.

MIKE: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: All right. Here's an email from Amy(ph) in St. Louis. As a former public defender, one of the consequences I advised my clients about was the problem a felony conviction would cause them for future job prospects. While your commentator agrees this is bizarre, it is reality.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yes.

CONAN: It seems to me that the exemptions made by the NFL for convicted players is another example of the classicism that exist in our society. No?

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, yes and no. I mean, there are a lot of NFL players who also haven't gotten that second chance who are seen as too radioactive. Unfortunately, when it comes to the NFL and all pro sports leagues, it's less a matter of the severity of your crime and more the matter of how much publicity did your crime receive. That's where the line is. So it's more like a mediaocracy as opposed to a sort of class system with regards to players. But we look at these players and the relationships with their teams as written large on the mass cultural landscape where our country is. And I think when it comes to Michael Vick, it's like, the man paid, it's time to play.

CONAN: Let's go to Alicia(ph). Alicia with us from Hagerstown in Maryland.

ALICIA (Caller): Hi. I would like to say that I disagree that - I'm sorry, I don't remember his name. But I disagree with the person that is speaking with you. I think that…

Mr. ZIRIN: Oh, Dave.

ALICIA: I'm sorry?

Mr. ZIRIN: Oh, Dave. Hi.

ALICIA: Oh. Hi, Dave. I'm really sorry.

Mr. ZIRIN: That's okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZIRIN: Please, continue.

ALICIA: I have a problem from the standpoint that - I am a teacher. I have heard students talk all the time - all the time - about the unkind actions that they take to animals. I know that every once in a while, they get punished and they serve their time just like Michael Vick did. But, unfortunately, the punishment doesn't seem to be enough to deter them from doing the same actions over and over again. And, in fact, I've heard them giggle and laugh about some of the things that have happened. I think that, yeah, Michael Vick has served his time and I totally agree with that. And I don't have a problem with Michael Vick going out and getting another job.

But I think when you put him back in the NFL and you let him play on a team again, in what a lot of our high schoolers think are very exalted positions and in a position that they look up to, I think that what our students are going to do is say, oh, well, look, Michael Vick got away with it. Yeah, he served a couple of years, but look at the millions of dollars he is now making. So what does it matter how - what kind of action I take?

I personally feel that humanity would be much better served if Michael Vick did not get another job in the NFL, took another job doing whatever it is that Michael Vick can do besides play football and then continue to work with the Humane Society and say, hey, look guys, this is my punishment. Yes, I served time, but I have a greater cause to fill by not going back and going back into that position where people are going to look up to me and say, hmm, yeah, he did it. He served his time.

I personally think he'd have a bigger platform if he didn't go back to the NFL, if nobody would hire him, and then he would still do his speaking and working with PETA or with the Humane Society or whoever it is.

CONAN: And I just wanted to add this email on from Robert(ph). He should not be reinstated as a quarterback. That's the team leader, a player intended to be a role model for our youth. I have no problems with him playing another position - but just a few seconds.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, that's an interesting thing to say. I also used to teach public school. And I spoke at a reform school recently to a bunch of students in Oakland. And they were all saying, I can't believe Michael Vick was arrested, everyone in my family fights pits. That's how they put it, fight pit bulls with each other. And so, you have to ask your question, how do we break that mentality?

I think the most effective way to break it is if Michael Vick is able to have the kind of platform, by playing in the NFL, to speak out. It's time for Michael Vick to stop paying and start playing.

CONAN: Alicia, thanks very much. I'm afraid we're out of time, but appreciate the phone call.

ALICIA: Thank you.

CONAN: Thank you. Dave Zirin joined us here in Studio 3A. He's the author of "Welcome To The Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports." He's also a sports editor for The Nation. You can find a link to his article for The Nation at our Web site at npr.org/talk.

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