Countless numbers of pro football players have committed rape, physical assaults, and armed robberies They have been inveterate spouse and girlfriend abusers, and have even been accused of a double murder (no, not O.J., more on him later). Yet none of them have ever had an airplane fly over their training camp with a banner that read abuser, killer, robber, assailant, or thug. None have ever been taunted, jeered, and harangued by packs of sign-waving demonstrators screaming for their blood when they showed up at the courthouse. None of them have ever brought the wrath of the entire sports world -- sportswriters, fans, league officials, advertisers, sports talk jocks, and bloggers down on their heads. None have ever had senators, congresspersons, and packs of advocacy groups publicly demand that they be drummed out of their profession.
Even America's favorite former football celeb turned pariah, O.J. Simpson for a time had legions of fans, advocacy groups, some writers and commentators, and the majority of blacks, passionately defend him, or at least the presumption of his innocence. Even after Simpson brought the wrath of the nation down on his head following his acquittal some still cut him some slack. That included rabid O.J. haters who said that the jury had spoken.
With disgraced Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick none of this applies. The moment the public got wind that the feds had their eyes on him and the issue was dog fighting, Vick was dog meat. With the sole exception of the Atlanta branch of the NAACP, which held a brief, perfunctory press conference, and lightly urged the public not to rush to judgment, Vick quickly snatched the pariah mantle from O.J.
So why have Americans wildly overblown him? There are three reasons. Americans pay devoted, emotional, and hypocritical lip service to their love of animals. I say "hypocritical" because many of the individuals that work themselves into a lather at the hint of a cross word or look at an animal won't utter a peep in protest to stop the killing and maiming of old men, women, and children in Iraq. They won't send a letter, fax or email to protest the genocide in Darfur and the Congo, or that occurred in Rwanda. They were stone silent on the hundreds of men that rotted on America's death row for years and came within a hairs breath of having their lives snuffed out but were later exonerated. But animals are different, the animal rights defenders say. They can't defend themselves. The inference is that humans can. Try selling that tired, self-serving line to the victims of war, genocide and the injustices in the criminal justice system. They are dead precisely because they were defenseless.
Vick had the misfortune of being rich and famous. In years gone by that combination virtually guaranteed celebrity criminals a never-go-to-jail-card. If they had enough cash, name ID, and pub, the public, police and prosecutors would step gingerly around them, or even openly cheer them on. Not anymore. If their name is Paris, Lohan, Simpson, Tyson, Michael Jackson, and now Vick, a public sick to death of the outrageous legal double standard that hand slaps celebrities for their criminal deeds, screams even louder for tossing the book at them. The double standard hasn't completely evaporated in the legal system. There are prosecutors and judges that are still thrilled at the thought of getting an autograph from or mugging for a photo with a badly behaving celeb. It's just not fashionable to say they are.
Then there's race. The feds didn't go after Vick because of his race. But the court of public opinion is a far different matter. It is the height of naiveté to think that the vitriol that many spew at Vick or any other rich, famous black athlete or celebrity that gets in hot water isn't fueled by hidden racial bias and ill-feeling. There's simply no evidence to back up the shout from some that they'll hammer a white athlete or celeb as hard when they are guilty of a crime or bad behavior. This is more ostrich-like pretense that race has no bearing on anything in America. Yet for me to even dare whisper the R word about Vick insures that I will be royally lambasted for playing the race card. In fact, I was accused of screaming racism in a previous piece on Vick when I never once mentioned the word race in the piece.
The supreme irony in the Vick saga is that he had everything going for him; fame, riches, fan and sportswriter adulation, and fawning sponsors. In the end those assets turned out to be a vicious double-edged sword that hacked him apart. They stoked public anger, hostility and vengeance. Vick is as much a victim of the ugly passions of the times as for his crimes. Vick and hysteria for now are horrible synonyms for those passions.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.