The Philadelphia Eagles have signed Michael Vick to a one-year contract with a club option for a second year. While player personnel experts can decide whether this was a good football acquisition for the bridesmaid Eagles - they always seem to get close to the Lombardi Trophy but do not quite capture the prize - I am more interested in what will certainly be the fans' major objection to the return of the disgraced quarterback.
As fans know, Vick was convicted in August 2007 of conspiracy in the running of a dog fighting ring on his property in Surry County, Virginia, which he called the "Bad Newz Kennels." He served 18 months of a 23-month sentence in federal prison. He was also suspended indefinitely by the League. Upon his release, last month the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell lifted the suspension of the former Atlanta Falcons star, at least in part. He was given permission to sign and practice with an NFL club and play in the last two preseason exhibition games. He could practice with his team once the regular season began, but Goodell would have to rule in mid-October whether he would be allowed to play in games thereafter. The prevailing thought was that no club would touch Vick with a ten-foot pole (or whatever the length of the pole that is used in dog fighting to separate the dogs). In fact, many clubs were interested.
Some fans are appalled that our new national pastime would allow the dog killer back on the gridiron. Goodell told reporters upon reinstating Vick: "I do recognize that some will never forgive him for what he did. I hope that the public will have a chance to understand his position as I have." It cannot be that our sport must remain felon-free, because felons do play, and have played, in this nasty and entertaining game. More than a fifth of all NFL players have arrest records. Fans find nothing objectionable in a bone-crushing clothesline tackle of a wide receiver cutting across the middle, but there is something about Vick's crime, just as Goodell suggests, that turns the stomach.
On occasion sports arbitrators are asked to review the discipline meted out to professional athletes for their misconduct away from the field. Vick was "off-duty" when he ran his Virginia operation. Shouldn't he be allowed to do whatever he wants with his own time? It depends whether his off-duty misconduct impacts on the business interests of his employer.
When Atlanta pitcher John Rocker used the opportunity of an interview with Sports Illustrated to trash virtually every minority group in America, Commissioner Selig fined him $20,000 and suspended him from spring training and the first month of the 2000 season. Rocker had said: "I'm not a very big fan of foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there. How the hell did they get in this country?" He also called his overweight black teammate "a fat monkey," and then shared his perspective on those taking the subway: "Imagine having to take the [Number] 7 train to the ballpark, looking like you're [riding through] Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids." Baseball's arbitrator, Shaym Das, substantially reduced his penalty, and Rocker was welcomed back by the Atlanta faithful only to play himself out of the game in short order.
Vick's misconduct, on the other hand, was criminal, as opposed to Rocker's pronouncements, which were merely uncivil, rude, immoral and disgusting. Vick embarrassed the NFL and the game of football, but he has paid his debt to society in full. While you may not want to invite him to your home, especially to pet your miniature schnauzer, you might be interested in whether he can still play the game. Without question, he was an exciting performer during his six seasons with the Falcons. He ranks third among quarterbacks in career running yards.
If Vick can play, he should be allowed to play. I know some will find that controversial, but his criminal activity had nothing to do with football, or the League or his club. Banning a player for life -- as Judge Landis did on numerous occasions with regard to ballplayers he thought were involved in gambling - should require clear proof that he is unable to participate. Vick forfeited his freedom for 18 months and deservedly so. He should be allowed to show us all that after this extended period of time, he can still read a blitz and call an audible. That is what should count on the field of play.