With "hate Michael Vick" mob hysteria raging in the sports world and among the general public, it seems Tasha Levin is about the only person that got it right about the embattled Atlanta Falcons quarterback. The Northeastern University student stood outside the federal courtroom in Richmond, Virginia where Vick was arraigned on dogfighting charges and reminded the world that Vick hasn't been convicted of anything, and that they're trying to sabotage his career. The "they" is the legion of animal rights groups, sportswriters, and irate fans who have screamed for Vick's head. Levin seems to be one of the few that haven't forgotten there's still a few little Constitutional things called presumption of innocence, innocent until proven guilty, the right to an unbiased, fair trial, reasonable doubt, and that criminal charges are just that charges, not convictions, and that a defendant's guilt or innocence is decided in a courtroom not by a gaggle of talking head sports commentators, animal rights picketers, and football crazies.
The capper though came from one blogger who claimed that Vick has now replaced O.J. Simpson as the most hated man in America. He's right. Vick, for the moment anyway, is America's pariah. He and Simpson have four things in common. They are and were football celebs. They lived opulent and princely lifestyles. They were and are victims of a rush to judgment. They are black males.
These four items would spell disaster for anyone. As with Simpson, they have come crashing down on Vick. And as with Simpson, there were quiet grumbles from some blacks that the get Vick mania is in part a sneaky reaction to the distaste for a brash, rich, black athlete. That, of course, is the same thing they said when high profile athletes celebrities such as Mike Tyson, Don King, Kobe Bryant and bad behaving politicians such as Marion Barry wound up in a court docket. I expect any day the inevitable opinion poll will be taken on how blacks and whites see the Vick case. It almost certainly would show the same racial divide as in the other celebrated cases.
The reason isn't hard to find. Many blacks are deeply aware of the harsh double-standard slapped on blacks, especially black males, in the criminal justice system. In fact, the moment that Vick was being arraigned on the dogfighting charges, the Sentencing Project released its annual report that showed that blacks are five times more likely to be arrested and convicted than whites. In Iowa, which is still one of the whitest states in America, blacks were an astounding thirteen times more likely to be jailed than were whites.
The pickets, all white, outside the courtroom where Vick was arraigned, at the Falcons' training camp, and at the NFL headquarters, seemed to confirm that the outrage against Vick went far beyond just animal lover's pique, but smacked of a personal vendetta against Vick. This topped the initial reaction to O.J. There were no anti O.J. pickets at his trial. This further convinced blacks that Vick has been tried, judged, and convicted before he has ever seen a courtroom.
The Vick case also fuels the same racial unease, even paranoia, among many blacks that was blatantly evident in the O.J. case, even though both men would be dead last on anyone's list of potential targets of racial victims. They moved in the glitter and glamour world of sports, hung out with white corporate executives, and celebrities, were hardly ever seen in black communities, gave no visible support to black causes, and rarely publicly commented on racial matters. Vick is no exception to that rule. But at the first touch of legal taint that silence, goodwill, and fame vanishes faster than a Houdini disappearing act.
A stoic Vick issued a statement through his attorney that he intended to clear his good name. Even if Vick somehow beats the fed charges in his trial which is scheduled for November, that's a doomed hope. In fact, as was the case with Simpson, that will ignite even greater public fury. They will wag fingers at Vick and say that he was able to use his fame and name, and his A team, high priced attorneys to massage the legal system to skip away scot free, even though he's guilty as sin. Vick will pay an even steeper price for that presumption.
He will lose any chance at endorsements. Sportswriters will rail against him. Animal rights groups will hound Vick in every city he sets foot in waving "Convick" signs in his face. Fans will rain boos and catcalls down on him when he sets foot on the field.
Fortunately, there are still a few like student Levin that haven't completely lost their heads in the face of the hate Vick chorus. That should give at least some of us hope that Vick may not be totally victimized by O.J.-itis.
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.