Atlanta Falcons star quarterback Michael Vick is the biggest name professional athlete to land on a police blotter in recent days. But he's hardly the only one. In the past couple of years more than a dozen pro football and basketball players have squirmed on the legal hot seat. They are some of the biggest names in their sport. They are paid a king's ransom in salary, and make millions more in endorsements, promotional and business deals.
And in nearly all cases they are young, black males. Vick has not as yet been convicted of any criminal misconduct, and he has said nothing publicly about the federal charges linked to gambling and dog fighting against him. Yet the instant the indictment against him on the charges was unsealed, animal right groups, several senators, and indignant sports commentators demanded that Vick be drummed out of the NFL. They didn't stop there. They also slyly hinted that Vick and dog fighting was a blood sport solely engaged in by black gang members for sport, profit, and as a gang rite of passage. This is vicious racial stereotyping. There is no evidence to back up that contention. Dog fighting is a big, lucrative international business complete with magazines, journals, packs of professional trainers, dog fighter registries, and huge wager invitational only matches.
Still, the troubling question that Vick's indictment raises is why do young men with so much to lose commit dumb, reckless acts and does their bad behavior and alleged criminal misconduct reinforce the ancient typecast of young black males as America's perennial outlaws? Vick is especially fair game for that charge. He is young, brash, and wealthy, and has had a run in with the League and fans before. A year ago, he was fined $10,000 by the NFL for flipping the finger at fans after a losing Atlanta Falcons game.
The question about the behavior of Vick and the other bad boy black athletes is not hard to answer. From the day they put on shorts or cleats, super talented athletes such as Vick become the instant repository of the dreams, delusions and fantasies of a public desperately in need of vicarious escape. They are swooned and fawned over by a star-struck media and public.
When they commit or are accused of criminal acts, the public reacts with shock and disbelief, yet it is still willing to cut them slack. If Vick is suspended by the NFL which is likely, when or if he returns, and guides Atlanta to a few wins, the fans and sportswriters will lustily cheer him. Vick will have the best legal defense money can buy. If convicted, which is less likely than if he were a regular Joe charged with the same offense, his high powered legal team will press for probation, a reduced sentence, or jail time in a minimum security prison.
In short, no pun intended, Vick will be dogged by the taint of the scandal, and he'll lose his endorsement deals, but the chances are good, not his career.
Baltimore Colts superstar linebacker Ray Lewis is living testament to the kid glove over-hype and idolatry of bad boy athletes. He was charged and jailed with murder a few years ago. He had a top notch defense team, and he ultimately beat the charges. He promptly led the Colts to a Superbowl win. The fans and sportswriters reveled in the win and his play.
Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant also experienced the effect of the outlaw image of black athletes. The instant he was charged with rape in Colorado, the endorsement deals dried up, and the fans and sportswriters turned hostile. But it didn't last. The minute he lit up the basketball court with prodigious point performances, the fans and sportswriters cheered lustily for him. His pockets were deep enough to hire the best legal whizzes around, and he ultimately beat the charges. His career has flourished since then. But the taint of the scandal still hovers over him.
The criminal run ins and bad behavior of some athletes such as Vick and Bryant have done much to feed the public notion that the NFL and the NBA is filled with crime-prone malcontents. This in turn has led NFL and NBA officials, always with a nervous eye on potential fan and advertiser backlash, to dish out fines, suspensions, and threats of expulsion to players. That further reinforces the public's negative image of the NFL and the NBA.
Vick is not necessarily the right model for the outlaw athlete, especially since he hasn't been convicted of anything yet. And athletes in other sports act boorish and irresponsible in their behavior too. Yet Vick's case dumps the troubling issue of wealth, celebrity hype, fan idolatry, and bad behaving athletes squarely back on the nation's table. The issue is one that can't be easily tossed to the dogs.
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.