Race Played Role in Vick Coverage, Critics Say Michael Vick, suspended quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, pleaded guilty on Monday to a felony charge for running a dogfighting ring on his Virginia property. The case has pushed animal cruelty into the spotlight and sparked a national conversation about race and justice.
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Race Played Role in Vick Coverage, Critics Say

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Michael Vick, the star quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, pleaded guilty in federal court in Richmond, Virginia yesterday to a felony charge connected to dog fighting. He also promised to assist the prosecution, and now faces what could be weeks of interrogation. The extent of his cooperation could be a factor at sentencing, which is scheduled for December 10th.

And while the case centers on animal cruelty and gambling, other issues have emerged, including arguments that the media overreacted that coverage lack of perspective, and that race and celebrity played no small part in the investigation and the coverage.

Later in the program, we'll check in on hospitals and health care in New Orleans two years after Katrina.

But first, the Michael Vick case. Is race a factor here? How? Does the punishment fit the crime?

Our number is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our blog, that's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

We begin with Michael S. Schmidt, he's a reporter for the New York Times. He's been covering the Vick case. He joins us from member station WCVE in Richmond, Virginia. And it's nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT (Reporter, New York Times): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And Michael Vick after pleading in federal court issued at - contrite-sounding apology at the news conference yesterday. But as you look at what he said and what he said in his plea agreement, what did he actually confess to?

Mr. SCHMIDT: Well, yesterday, he can really confess too much or may he admitted that he was guilty in the courtroom. And at the press conference, he apologized for what had happened. But he seemed to focus more on what he had done to the NFL, how he had lied to his coach, and his teammates, the owner of the Falcons, and the commissioner of the NFL, and to sort of begin to resurrect his image.

A year in jail, you know, maybe very bad for anyone. But what I think Michael Vick has lost more is is his entire career.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SCHMIDT: Everything associated with that. And he seems to be trying to work that back, you know, more than anything else.

CONAN: Yet, at least according to the printed versions of his plea agreement, there seems to be some waffling on what he actually did. He said the deaths of dogs resulted from the collective actions of himself and his co-defendants. He did not admit that he played a direct part in drowning or electrocuting or hanging dogs.

Mr. SCHMIDT: The language in his statement of facts was toned down from the language in the statement of facts of his co-defendants. It still says that he was complicit in the killing of 68 dogs. It does not say that he execute them, the word that was used in the other statement of facts. But it - certainly, he admits in there that he was part of it. And as being part of it, whatever his role was, you know, the dogs did die under his watch.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SCHMIDT: He also says in his statement of facts that he didn't place any side bets. In the indictment, it did say that he placed side bets. But at - you know, when his statement came out, it said he didn't, but that he did fund the gambling. This does not matter to the NFL. The NFL has, you know, five or six points regarding gambling, which they say players cannot be a part of, and one of them is the association with gamblers…

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. SCHMIDT: …and by funding the gambling and being present when bets took place, he has associated with gamblers. And the NFL can do whatever they want.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. He's been suspended indefinitely by the NFL. But obviously, that's going to remain to be - to figure out in terms of what he senses and what he does after he gets out of prison. But in the meantime, before that, he's going to be asked to cooperate with federal authorities who are going to be investigating other dog fighting rings.

Mr. SCHMIDT: It's unclear if it's going to be dog fighting or if it could be something completely different. But what the government has now is a witness in Michael Vick do whatever they'd like, and it says that in plain English in the plea agreement. They can bring him in front of grand jury, they can bring him as a witness at trial, and they can even ask him to take a lie detector test, all for the government's benefit of whatever.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Now, you've been covering the case there in Richmond. Has race been a factor? Did Michael Vick cite it all yesterday in his statement either on his plea agreement or in his news conference? And what about the scene outside the courtroom?

Mr. SCHMIDT: This case means a lot of different things to many different people. At a macro perspective from where I've seen it, race has not appeared to be in a, you know, a very loud issue. You have not seen, you know, people coming to Michael Vick's aid, anyone coming to Michael Vick's aid.

Outside the courthouse, it didn't seem to be much of that. It seems to be a lot of anti-dog fighting people and pro-Michael Vick people. But I can't really say that race has been a huge issue among the (unintelligible).

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Obviously, it maybe different in Atlanta, which, of course, was where he was based.

Mr. SCHMIDT: Correct. Correct.

CONAN: And just to get back to the - of the sentencing, that's been scheduled for the 10th. The prosecution has recommended, as I understand it, something on the short end of the possible sentencing. He could face up to five years. But the judge does not have to abide by that.

Mr. SCHMIDT: The judge yesterday made it a point, as he did with the plea hearings of the other three co-defendants, that he is not bound at all by what the government says. He can do whatever he pleases in regards to sentencing Michael Vick. And Michael Vick has waived his right to appeal then. So in that sense, he could put Michael Vick in jail for five years. The government could say - the government could just smile and Michael Vick's lawyers will not be able to do anything.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And thanks very much for that, Michael Schmidt. We appreciate your time today.

Mr. SCHMIDT: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Michael Schmidt, a reporter for the New York Times is with us from our member station in Richmond, Virginia WCVE.

CONAN: Joining us now is Dave Zirin, a columnist for Slam magazine, a regular contributor to The Nation. His most recent book is titled "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports." He's with us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.

Mr. DAVE ZIRIN (Columnist, SLAM magazine; Regular Contributor, The Nation; Author, "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports"): Oh, great to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And also with us is Ron Thomas, a veteran sports journalist, director of the Journalism and Sports Program at Morehouse College in Atlanta, author of the book "They Cleared the Lane: The NBA's Black Pioneers." He's with us today from the studio of the Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta. And it's very good to have you on the program as well.

Mr. RON THOMAS (Veteran Sports Journalist, Director, Journalism and Sports Program, Morehouse College; Author, "They Cleared the Lane: The NBA's Black Pioneers"): Well, thanks for inviting me.

CONAN: And, Ron, Ron Thomas, let me begin with you there in Atlanta. Has this taken on a racial aspect in that city?

Mr. THOMAS: Oh, I think in a degree, I think any time a black celebrity is being accused of something, you know, with large legal ramifications, then, I think, immediately black people tend to be protective, particularly in this case, in a sense of let's make sure he's treated fairly. I mean we're talking about an illegal dog fighting operation, which I think it's disgusting to most people around the country.

So it's not a question of defending what Michael Vick did or what he was accused of doing before he pled guilty. It's I think for a lot of people who are concerned that let's wait and see how this shakes out, let's not convict the guy in public opinion until we really get a chance to see the evidence. Now, as it turned out, the evidence turned, you know, was - the fact that he pled guilty.

But I think the fairness issue is really important to black people, particularly because in this country, there is a long history of legal injustice when it comes to black people being accused of things they have not been guilty of.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And, Dave Zirin, let me turn to you.

Mr. ZIRIN: Mm-hmm

CONAN: And I know some of the things that you've written include suggestions that Michael Vick was not treated fairly, he's certainly not, by the news media.

Mr. ZIRIN: No. I mean, I think the level of bombast around this case and a lot of the reportage around this case has reached some of the heights of irresponsibility. And I just want to be clear that I, as well, abhor dogfighting. I, as well, am not a, quote, unquote, "defender of Michael Vick," whatever that means. But I do feel like the reporting has been above and beyond the pale. And I'm not just talking about the nether regions of the blogosphere, where you can find all kinds of disgusting things about Michael Vick, very racially loaded that I wouldn't even want to repeat on the air.

But I'm talking about some of our best sports columnist, particularly thinking of someone like Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, who's one of my favorites, who's a hero of mine. She wrote a column where she compared Michael Vick's actions to those of someone who practices fascism or genocide. Now, I don't know who that's more offensive to, people who have actually been victims of fascism and genocide or the readers who she thinks are going to buy that and take that in and say, yeah, he is as bad as a genocidal fascist.

And just another note, I was on Sports Radio - one of the biggest sports radio stations in Texas - yesterday, and the person on the air, the host, he said that what Michael Vick did was worse than if an athlete had sexually assaulted their own daughter. I mean, that was said on the air. And I think that kind of language is unconscionable and what it does is it robs us of any sense of perspective.

It takes this from being a teachable moment about dogfighting, about animal cruelty, about the limits of celebrity, and turns it into something much uglier. And I think that's why you have a visceral reaction among some folks, particularly in the African American community. Even if they don't defend what Vick did, they feel a sense of - a feeling like they have to defend him from this kind of language.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And in Atlanta, following the plea agreement, Ron Thomas, has there been a moment of reflection, do you think?

Mr. THOMAS: Well, I think obviously, one thing was that the controversy about did he or didn't he is over…

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. THOMAS: …because of the plea agreement. So, in that sense, that issue is no longer an issue. I think one of the interesting issues for black people in this is the question of forgiveness, you know, the fact that now he's said he - pled guilty. And I know there are a lot of comments that came out and said, you know, he should never play again. And I think, in general, black people would feel, no, let's give him a chance to do the things that will result in forgiveness.

And let him, after he's paid his penalty, you know, in terms of serving whatever prison time is required, after he served the suspension to the NFL by the NFL, when it comes down, let's give him a chance to resume his profession. And if teams - if the team chooses to sign him, then it gives him another chance. I think that's a big concern for black people.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah. Another concern as well that I've come across in speaking with people is the issue of this being a double standard in terms of how it's being reported. In that if, say, hypothetically, you had the same crime, but it was a white quarterback, if it was Peyton Manning, would this be being talked about in terms of this is just about Peyton Manning or this is a teachable moment about dogfighting. When instead, we see columns and reportage about the state of the black athlete, about hip-hop culture.

And so a lot of people are saying well, wait a minute, why does this have to be about me just because I have dark skin? This is about Michael Vick, his crime, his actions. And when people feel like it's being made something bigger than that, to condemn a culture, to condemn a community, that's when people also bristle at some of the reportage.

CONAN: Do you honestly think if this had been, for example, about Brett Favre, the quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, people wouldn't have said redneck culture, you know, Louisiana? Come on, this is among the highly - most highly paid entertainers in the country. This is news.

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, we can look - you know, that's definitely true. I mean, when this becomes an issue of celebrity and entertainment, but the person who I keep thinking of is Josh Hancock, the late St. Louis Cardinals pitcher, an absolute tragedy, died in a drunk driving accident earlier this year. There was marijuana in the car. It was a terrible story. Sympathy goes out to the Cardinals organization and his family, of course. But when it happened, the story was about Josh Hancock and about the Cardinals.

It wasn't a story about the state of the white athlete. It wasn't a story about what kind of music was he listening to. And does country music have too much alcoholism?

CONAN: Awful lot of stories - an lot of awful lot of stories about how much beer there was in locker rooms and where he got the alcohol. And there were an awful lot of stories like that, Dave.

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, I just - I feel like it's not the same way. And it's certainly not taken the same way.

CONAN: Several organizations, including the - a lot of organizations banned alcohol in their clubhouses after that story.

Mr. ZIRIN: In the aftermath of that?

CONAN: Yes, indeed.

Mr. ZIRIN: That was a good - it's a good thing to know, frankly.

CONAN: We'll talk more about Michael Vick's case when we come back. Our guests are Dave Zirin, who's a columnist for SLAM magazine and for The Nation, as well. Ron Thomas, also with us, a veteran sports journalist and director of the Journalism and Sports Program at Morehouse College in Atlanta. 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

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

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Michael Vick apologized to his fans yesterday, to his team also, after pleading guilty to federal charges related to dogfighting. It remains to be seen if he'll be able to save his career or his reputation. And reaction to his punishment and likely prison sentence has been split. Some argue the case was overblown, and that race and celebrity played a role. If you've been following the case, is race a factor here? And if so, how does the punishment fit the crime? 800-989-8255. E-mail talk@npr.org.

Our guests are Dave Zirin, a columnist of SLAM magazine and author of "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports," and Ron Thomas, a veteran sports journalist and director of the Journalism and Sports Program at Morehouse College in Atlanta, author of "They Cleared the Lane: The NBA's Black Pioneers."

And let's see is we can get a caller on the line. This is Sahid(ph). Sahid is with us from Detroit.

SAHID (Caller): Hi, Neal. My comment is this. I think that there is a double standard. To me, when I've been listening to and reading about Michael Vick, it seems as though there is this perception that Michael Vick was sort of given an opportunity as an African American athlete to be in the NFL. As though this was some privilege bestowed upon him, and he blew it.

And if this was a white athlete in a similarly situated position, it would have been reported more as the tragic downfall of an athlete. Here, it's viewed with a lot more contempt, a lot more derision, as though he blew an opportunity, which was handed to him, not based on his own merits.

CONAN: Do you…

Mr. THOMAS: Neal…

CONAN: Would you agree with that, Ron?

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah. I'd like to address this. You know, I think this is about the state of the black athlete to a degree. I'm not saying that you can look at Michael Vick and say he represents who black athletes in general are or what they've become. But the fact is - at Morehouse in May, we had a forum on the black athlete. It was put together by Spike Lee who inspired our journalism program. And we spent at least, I'd say, half of the program talking about the flurry of arrests that occurred, particularly among NFL players, last year. And Michael Vick has just taken this to another level.

And one of the things that's really important here is that if these athletes - a lot of them arise out of difficult situations, of poor, poverty situations, and Michael Vick was one of them. And he ended up with a 10-year $130-million contract. What good - how much good could he have done with that? And he did blow it. And also, I think one of the problems that athletes run into, particularly from poor circumstances, is this need to - what they call keeping it real, you know, to stay with their old friends and keep them closer.

And I think Michael Vick was a guy who kept - the old friends and sort of let them pull him back from - toward doing things that he had done in - when he was in his poor background. And instead, I'd like to see more black athletes take this opportunity to lift up their friends. If they want to stick with their old friends, that's fine. But rather than be funding an illegal dogfighting business for six years with his friends. It would have been great if Michael Vick said, look, if you haven't finished high school, I've got the money to help you get your GED. And if you want to go to college, you know, I can help you do that. So I think this is important. And it is - does say something about state of the black athlete.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THOMAS: You know, when you think back to the 1960s and '70s, the black athletes who got in - who were controversial, were people like Muhammad Ali, or people like Jim Brown with his - I know he had some crime problems, but also with his black empowerment - economic empowerment program in Cleveland. And Bill Russell, taking a strong stand on civil rights. So those are the types of things that I would like to see become priorities for black athletes today, rather than these types of legal messes they get into by making poor decisions and making poor choices about who their friends are.

CONAN: Dave Zirin?

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah. Well, first of all, I think there are athletes today who are attempting to stand in the tradition of people like Bill Russell and Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali. But those just aren't the sexy stories. And I think some of this is about what the media chooses to talk about and discuss. And the thing about this Michael Vick case is that the temperature on this has risen way past 200 degrees, to where we're having these wild debates about whether pit bull fighting is worse than fascism and genocide.

When people like Etan Thomas and Ron Artest, two NBA players - they just returned from Africa where they were working with HIV-affected children, you know, in a clinic that's run by Kermit Washington, another former NBA player. This is a remarkable story to me. They were delivering tons of food as part of the Save the Children program. This is a remarkable story, yet it's not sexy. It's not going to lead Sports Center.

And when you talk to someone like Etan Thomas, who spoke at that Morehouse forum that the professor was speaking about. Etan Thomas is someone who says, yeah, I understand that there is a tradition of athletes who use their hyper-exalted position to speak out about the world. And I want to stand in that tradition of Russell and people like Ali and Jim Brown. But the problem, like I said, is that these stories are not amplified the way they need to be.

Mr. THOMAS: But I think one problem is that, for whatever reason - and there are many reasons, when Ali and Jim Brown and Curt Flood were taking, you know, really moral stances about different aspects of society, it was encountered by having a whole bunch of stories about - by having a lot of black players being arrested. Again, I'm not saying that those guys represent the majority of players. But this has become more and more of a problem in the last couple of years. And Michael Vick, because - partly because of what he did, the dogfighting, offended just millions of people who ordinarily - probably, don't even paid much attention to sports, but they're dog lovers, or pet lovers. And so this has become a much larger issue than an athlete who's gotten into legal trouble.

CONAN: All right. Thank you very much for the call, Sahid.

SAHID: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go now to - this is Kristen(ph). Kristen's with us from Chicago.

KRISTEN (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

KRISTEN: You know, I don't care if Michael Vick was black, white, green, purple. To me, this is not a story about color. This is about moral outrage in a culture that really does expect its athletes to be role models and pays them handsomely for that privilege. I don't think you have to be Muhammad Ali. But this guy used his position to torture innocent animals in the most depraved way. And I think this contempt comes from that animal cruelty.

I mean, we're talking about a country here where there are more places for homeless animals than there are for homeless people. We're a nation of dog lovers. I think that's where the outrage is coming from, not from his color or from - but more from his position and from what he did.

CONAN: Dave?

Mr. ZIRIN: No, I think that's largely right. But I would turn that on its head and ask the real question about the moral outrage. I mean, I think it's a problem that when you have the athletes get arrested for issues like domestic battery or violence against women, it's met with much more of a roll of the eyes and a yawn than this. I think it's a problem in that in this country, there are more places for battered animals than there are for battered women. This is a real problem.

And what I would love is to see - I mean, I'm fine if people want to humanize the dog. I'm fine if people want to say, you know what, I love my dog and cruelty to animals is the worst thing in the world. As long as that accompanies a sense of perspective about a broader cruelty and broader problems that are happening in our country and in our world, like it's disturbing to me that we live in a period of so much violence, and war, et cetera.

A country where there's 300 million guns on the streets, according to one conservative study, those exists in our country. Yet, this is what we reserve our outrage for. And that there's something about that that's disturbing to me.

KRISTEN: Well, I don't.

Mr. THOMAS: I agree with David. But I think the point is right, that because it's dogs, because it's cruelty to animals, it just enflamed fury in so many more people than normal. It's - but, you know, the fact is he pled guilty to a crime that's punishable at a maximum of five years, which is much, much less of a prison sentence than a lot of other legal problems that athletes are - get into. So you're right, this is - but this is - it's just a very strange situation.

CONAN: Kristen, I heard you trying to get back in. I'm sorry?

KRISTEN: Oh, I would just wanted to say that, you know, I'm no (unintelligible) a person. But I'm pretty mortified to see people getting behind this guy and saying, oh, the NFL should be more worried about gambling than animal torture. You know, I really understand what the guests are saying that there are much worse crimes that can be committed. But that doesn't make this not a heinous crime.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah. It doesn't make it right. It's not to excuse, but I do think there's nothing wrong with trying to offer a little bit of context, given the amount of heat around this case.

CONAN: All right. Kristen, thanks very much.

KRISTEN: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Let's go now to - this is Dan(ph). Dan's with us from Oakland in California.

DAN (Caller): That's right. I'm calling because you responded to a comment from Dave a little while ago before - right before you went to the phones.

CONAN: Right.

DAN: Where Dave was basically saying that the - that this was being reported differently, that this was - that the reporting here was reflecting back on black culture in general. And you're rebuttal was that, in fact, when this was - when there's a similar story regarding the Cardinals pitcher, that the reporting there did look the culture in general. But that was really still limited to just the sports culture.

And then Dave was saying, you know, if this was just a report about football, about football players, about, you know, about sports in general and Michael Vick, that'd be one thing. But, in fact, it is reflecting back. If I'm a black kid on the street, it's reflecting back on me based on the reporting.

Mr. ZIRIN: Mmm. Question for Neal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Question for me. But - in fact, well, yes, he made a factual point, which I sought it to correct.

DAN: My question really is, you know, is this - for Dave, really, you know, is there more there about how this is reflecting back differently…

CONAN: Well, doesn't this go…

DAN: …see the black player than a white player.

CONAN: Yeah - I don't mean to put words in your mouth, Dan, but this goes back to the role model question. And I guess it goes back to Charles Barkley's famous statement that I am not a role model. He later admitted whether that he wanted to be or not, he was. And it was interesting that among those that Michael Vick took the time to apologize to directly yesterday were the young fans who idolized him.

Mr. ZIRIN: Mm-hmm.

DAN: Sure.

Mr. ZIRIN: The role model question is real. But I think one of the things that Dan says that is correct is that the whole case around Hancock, it did become a question about clubhouse culture and drinking and driving with - but you didn't see, like, people on the street and bars saying, like, an average white guy in a bar, black guy in a bar even, saying, hey, you know what? This reflects badly on me that he's drinking.

Yet this case surrounded Vick. There's something, I think something tragic, for example, outside the courthouse where people felt like they had to hold up signs during the trial that said things like due process and remember the Constitution. The people felt like that this should be a reminder. And I think that has everything to do with the history of race, the criminal justice system and especially the way those two issues intersect with athletics.

CONAN: Well, let me ask you, Ron Thomas, is this - does this reflect on every black person in the street? Do you think that they feel this personally?

Mr. THOMAS: I don't think it does. I mean, I think you have to look at it as - I think you have to look at it as an athlete who, as an individual, made very poor decisions and it has caused him his career. And I think it doesn't say anything about me, but I think we can take it as a lesson that other athletes should follow, should pay attention to.

And that again goes to this - the lesson of being more responsible, of making better decisions, of making good choices, better choices about who their friends are. And, also, I think the most important lesson that I hope they learn is that this type of irresponsible behavior can totally destroy your career.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Dan.

DAN: Sure. Thank you.

CONAN: And it remains to be seen as to whether Michael Vick will be able to pursue his career after he finishes whatever time he ends up serving in prison and whatever suspension the league gives out. But that has been, Dave Zirin, a big aspect of this, as some people are saying, from the get-go…

Mr. ZIRIN: Big aspect. Big aspect.

CONAN: …that he should be, you know, prohibited from playing ever again.

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, another of our great American sportswriters, John Feinstein, just wrote yesterday in the Washington Post that he thought Michael Vick had forfeited the right to return to the NFL through this conviction. And this is one of the things where I think, like, we are a nation that's, I think, been built on people having second acts.

Unlike what Fitzgerald said, there are second acts in American life. We've seen that time again. And I think Vick is entitled to one. If he, you know, pays his debt to society and just as the NFL has been able to give people second chances who have been convicted of far more heinous crimes, I don't think Vick should be an exception.

CONAN: We're talking about the Michael Vick case with Dave Zirin of SLAM magazine and The Nation, and also with Ron Thomas of the Morehouse Colleges of Journalism and Sports program. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Chuck(ph) on the line. Chuck is calling from San Francisco.

CHUCK (Caller): Thanks very much. Ordinarily, I'd probably be inclined to, you know - I basically believe that we should throw the book at people for dogfighting, because I think it's pretty barbaric.

However, I think this particular case says more about the state of pro sports and the state of our culture than it does about the state of the black athlete or anything in particular about Michael Vick, because it - well, basically, it seems to me there are a lot of parallels between how the dogs are treated in the world of dogfighting and how pro-athletes are treated by our society when you consider that, you know, the quality of the life of the successful dogs, I understand, like successful fighting cocks is pretty high compared to, you know, a chicken that's going to be dinner or a dog locked up in some apartment by itself all day or chained up in a junk yard. And that the average person who goes for an NFL career, they don't have good retirement benefits.

You know, they often get - you know, their knees are wrecked, they got concussions, they got low retirement benefits, their average life span, I think, is under 60? So, you know, when you think about it, he might have seen the way society treats him and, you know, there's a certain parallel there.

CONAN: Do you see that, Ron Thomas?

Mr. THOMAS: No. I don't at all. I - you know, I think when you look at the situation in a case of a Michael Vick here in - he's like a god in Atlanta. I can't imagine that anyone could be treated better than Michael Vick. And, certainly, it depends…

CHUCK: I'm talking about the pro-athletes in general. When you think about boxers, you think about, you know, not the Michael Vick, necessarily, but a lot of other people he probably knows professionally.

Mr. THOMAS: So you - I don't think I understand what your point is. Are you saying that because he's a pro-athlete who may feel, in some way, pro-athletes are treated unfairly, that somehow results in this behavior that can…

CHUCK: I think that they are - they basically sacrifice their bodies in a lot of cases, the ones that don't get famous, they still get the concussions, they still get the blown-out knees for an entertainment industry. So it's a kind of a dog-eat-dog business. And, you know, I think that the (unintelligible).

CONAN: Got to watch those metaphors, Chuck.

CHUCK: I'm not that psyched about the state of pro-sports in general these days, what with all the - the kind of the corners there being cut.

Mr. THOMAS: Well…

CHUCK: And there's very little…

CONAN: Yeah. Go ahead, Ron.

Mr. THOMAS: Let me just say this. I don't think, no matter what you say about the economics, pension plans, whatever, about how pro-athletes are treated, I don't think that has anything to do with Michael Vick being involved in financing and participating in a dogfighting enterprise for six years. I don't see any correlation whatsoever.

CHUCK: I mean…

CONAN: Dave, I want to get you in. I know you've written exactly on this point.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah. The only point I would make is I don't disagree with what you're saying, Ron. But I will say I asked an NFL player about the Vick situation and he shrugged his shoulders and he said, well, maybe it's a case of trickle down violence. And I asked him what he meant about that. And what he said to me, he said, there's this expectation for us to play this incredibly violent sport on Sundays and then be like Little Lord Fauntleroy after the game ends.

And, you know, I could understand, like, there's a bit of frustration there. Like, as Americans, we want our violence so packaged in three-hour increments every Sunday and then we're shocked when these guys aren't necessarily choirboys once the gun goes off. I think it's a little bit odd to expect people to be these pinnacle-type heroes Monday through Saturday, and then on Sunday we expect them to be almost animalistic in their aggression.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THOMAS: You know, Dave, I could agree with you if we were talking about Michael Vick being accused of assaulting somebody, getting in a fight out of club or something like that.

Mr. ZIRIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THOMAS: Because, I mean, they are athletes who are trained to response, sort of, in a violent way. I mean, that's what their business is. They play a violent game.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THOMAS: But that does not - that doesn't account for financing a business for six years.

Mr. ZIRIN: I agree.

CONAN: All right.

Mr. THOMAS: You can't - that's…

Mr. ZIRIN: I agree.

Mr. THOMAS: …you can't call it a mistake, you know?

Mr. ZIRIN: I don't.

Mr. THOMAS: Because - and we live in a violent culture.

CHUCK: I wasn't calling it a mistake.

CONAN: Chuck, we're going to have to leave it there. Thanks very much for the call, tough. And our thanks to Ron Thomas, who joined us today from Atlanta Georgia, where he is the director of Morehouse College's Journalism and Sports Program. Also, our thanks to Dave Zirin, who's a columnist for SLAM magazine and a regular contributor to The Nation.

When we come back, health care in New Orleans. This is NPR News.

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