In 2007, football star Michael Vick took a plea deal from federal authorities and served 21 months in prison over a shocking and brutal dog-fighting ring he bankrolled (and helped run) for five years, under the auspices of his "Bad Newz Kennels." Vick lost a lucrative contract and endorsements that had him making more than $25 million, and eventually he had to file for bankruptcy. On his way back to the top of the NFL, he's had to endure a fair amount of taunting and public shaming, to which he has responded by teaming up with the Humane Society and becoming an advocate of humane treatment for dogs, as well as tougher laws protecting their care. (PETA, among others, isn't buying it.)
But even if you believe that Vick paid the price for his past sins, it's remarkable how the media -- sports reporters, in particular -- gloss over the player's past when his name makes headlines, as it did this weekend. When news broke that the New York Jets signed Vick -- on National Puppy Day, no less -- the different ways sports reporters referred to Vick's dark history was telling.
First, and perhaps most common, are vague references to a "role" and bad "activity" and "forgettable baggage," most of which do at least address the fact that Vick's downfall had something to do with dogfighting (all emphasis added):
Vick is accustomed to criticism. He got it in Atlanta; he got it in Philadelphia; he got it everywhere after his entanglement in a dog-fighting criminal case cost him two years in jail.
-- The Sporting News
If you're worried that there would be more of the controversy that surrounded Vick upon his return to the NFL after serving prison time for his involvement in an illegal dogfighting ring, don't be.
Vick has rehabilitated his image after serving 18 months in federal prison for his role in an illegal dogfighting operation, and he could be a daily reminder of the significance of behaving responsibly.
-- The New York Times
Vick is a nearly broken down soon-to-be 34-year-old who arrives with some forgettable baggage from his former days as a dogfighter. Off the field, he has now become a strong voice for the prevention of animal cruelty, but on the field, he takes way too many bone-crunching hits, gets hurt all the time and is in the twilight of a very strange injury- and scandal-plagued career.
-- New York Daily News
Once upon a time, Vick was the most polarizing athlete in sports. There was the dogfighting scandal and the subsequent prison sentence, 21 months in a federal pen. He was bad news, but the Eagles took a chance after commissioner Roger Goodell reinstated him.
A few years ago, Vick hoped to get a crack at another job in the NFL after his activity in a heinous dogfighting ring was exposed and resulted in a 21-month prison stint.
-- USA Today
The Eagles signed Vick in 2009, after he served his 21-month federal prison sentence for dogfighting conspiracy and was reinstated by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The move was controversial among fans who objected to Vick's dogfighting activities, and because the Eagles already had Donovan McNabband Kevin Kolb on their roster.
-- ESPN again
His playing career was abruptly halted for two seasons in 2007 when he pleaded guilty to being part of a dog fighting ring. He served 21 months in federal prison, and two more in home confinement. Since his release in 2009, Vick has worked with the Humane Society of the United States to stop organized animal fighting.
-- Associated Press via Fox News
Then there are the vague allusions to Vick's troubled past without much specificity (again, emphasis added):
Though Vick's more or less moved on at this point from his previous issues, it's pretty clear New York hasn't forgotten.
-- CBS Sports
And then there's this Sports Illustrated story, which makes no mention of his dogfighting past at all. And this one, from the New York Daily News, which promises to be about "Critics of Michael Vick" -- but ignores the subject, and his biggest critics, completely.
All of which avoids the truth behind what Vick actually admitted to doing: Running a dogfighting ring at his own estate, where he admitted to personally participating in drowning and hanging dogs. As Juliet Macur wrote in the New York Times earlier this year, Vick wasn't just involved (or entangled, or played a role) in a dog-fighting ring -- he was "the mastermind" behind it:
He bankrolled it, gave it a home base, encouraged it ... In the backyard of his Virginia home were mass graves of pit bulls that had fought for him or had been torn apart serving as bait dogs in practice sessions. The surviving dogs were found barely alive, beaten, starved, tortured and chained to concrete slabs. ...
Dogs that did not perform well for Vick were drowned, electrocuted, shot. He admitted to holding dogs while a noose was placed over their heads, then dropping those dogs to their deaths.
Once, he and a friend grabbed the paws of a little red dog and held it over their heads, like a jump rope, slamming the animal on the ground again and again until it was lifeless, according to ''The Lost Dogs'' by Jim Gorant, a book about the dogs in Vick's ring.
Rather than say Vick was involved or entangled or played a role in a dogfighting ring, why not simply write, "Vick admitted to torturing and killing dogs through his dogfighting ring"? It has the twin journalism virtues being both clear and accurate.
(To know more about Vick case, be sure to check out Gorant's excellent and thorough book on the subject, too.)
Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Saks Fifth Avenue.
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