Since 2009, the Jets have conducted their summer training camp on the Cortland campus, an arrangement from which both organizations have benefited. But after acquiring quarterback and convicted animal abuser Michael Vick, the normally warm reception accorded the Jets on our campus and in the community may be marred by those who cannot abide Vick's presence. The most visible harbinger of discord came in the form of an anonymous petition drive, recently launched on change.org, to "disinvite" Vick because of his past indescribably horrible treatment of dogs.
Leaving aside the fact that the college is in no position to tell the Jets who they may or may not hire (not to mention the clunky grammar of a "disinvitation"), the petition, which rapidly acquired over 20,000 signatures from around the country and abroad, bungled what might otherwise have been a thoughtful moment to think about animal abuse and professional sports.
First, the petition contained at least two lurid errors. It claimed that Vick "has never once apologized" for the animal abuse, and "admitted that he would continue to fight dogs if given the chance." After his 2007 plea bargain and 19 months in federal prison, Vick made dozens of apology appearances, including on network TV. He worked cooperatively with the Humane Society to draw attention to animal abuse, apologizing and accepting full personal responsibility. Was it sincere or a sham? Judge for yourself. But he served his prison time, and has expended enormous energy to bring light to the serious problem of animal abuse. And as for the alleged statement that Vick would still like to fight dogs, there is no record that he ever said such a thing.
Second, SUNY Cortland alleges that the initiator of the online petition improperly used the college name and website to set up the petition (it says, erroneously, "Petition by SUNY Cortland"), a matter the college continues to pursue. And the cloak of petitioner anonymity only undercuts the credibility of the effort.
Even though the petition exaggerated Vick's wrongdoing, there is no dispute that the abuse was an indescribably awful felony. And the college could take one action: cancel its contract with the Jets. But this takes us to a central question: Why single out Vick among NFL players and the Jets? Let's face it: The NFL is full of felons, spousal abusers and miscreants. In 2013 alone, three NFL players were found responsible for the deaths of others. A study by the sports website Deadspin reports a violent crime arrest rate (including assault, battery and domestic charges) of 7.4 per thousand NFL players, a third higher than the population as a whole; a DUI charge rate of 8.3 per thousand, 80 percent higher than the nationwide rate; and 2.2 per thousand weapons charges, 324 percent higher than the nationwide rate. Even given that young males are the most crime-prone portion of the population, the numbers are disturbing.
Back to Vick: Having served his time, is he entitled to resume his profession? I'd say yes. Are people entitled to protest him and his animal abuse past? Also yes. But what about the bigger question: Does an uber-violent sport attract or even cultivate violence? Does the American obsession with sports, both collegiate and professional, insulate or even excuse felonious behavior that would not be tolerated in other professions? Recent reports of sexual abuse cover-ups and wrongful athlete favoritism at such respected universities as the University of North Carolina, the University of Michigan, the University of Montana, the University of Missouri and Florida State University cast ever more doubt on our blind obsession with football and other sports.
If the marriage of Vick and the Jets winds up placing SUNY Cortland at the center of this controversy this summer, maybe it's the best place for it. Where better to expose to sunlight the crime of animal abuse, and the bigger crime of a sports industry that has done too little to clean its own house, than a college campus? I predict that we at Cortland will be ready.