Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Sadists Can’t Be Heroes: the Michael Vick Scandal

And so, to all who argue that professional athletes shouldn’t be held to higher standards of conduct than the typical street punk, that they are not role models but simply gladiators; to all those who see nothing objectionable about NBA players pulling down endorsement contracts when they aren’t certain about how many illegitimate children they have sired, or NFL players continuing to play after multiple assault charges or drug busts, and MLB players who are allowed to break records after obvious steroid use has made them resemble the Thing from The Fantastic Four; and all those whose mantra is that in America citizens are “innocent until proven guilty,” no matter how damning the facts, the Ethics Scoreboard poses this question:

What do you want to do with Michael Vick?

He is an NFL quarterback, a high-profile, highly paid “hero.” Do you want your kid wearing the jersey of a man whose property was acquired and outfitted for the express purpose of holding brutal, illegal dog fights, a felony in every state? Should he continue to be a football hero until he is “proven guilty in a court of law,” while FBI documents state that he tortured, shot, crushed, beat, strangled, and electrocuted innocent animals in his charge? Should his employers, the Atlanta Falcons, be required to let him wear the team uniform, associating the organization with conduct that is beyond cruel and criminal?

The ethical issue of what is fair treatment of an employee charged with a crime is a common and difficult one. An organization owes its first duty not to the individual but to the organization itself and the people it serves. A bank vice-president accused of embezzlement cannot be allowed to work at the bank until she is cleared. A child care worker accused of child abuse must not continue to oversee children while there is any question at all about his guilt. A reporter accused of making up news stories must stay away from the news room until he or she has been cleared.

How can an accused dog fighter and felon—and we could justly append the terms “sadist” and “liar” to these—continue to be a highly paid hero?

The answer is obvious. He can’t. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has established a new discipline policy that has already resulted in the suspension of repeat offenders like Pacman Jones. Will Goodell be able to apply that policy in a situation that doesn’t involve multiple arrests or accusations, but rather one long indictment covering six years and dozens of crimes and instances of cruelty?

It better. The indictment against Vick and his three “associates” is remarkably detailed and absolutely horrific; those interviewed for a Sports Illustrated story said that Vick’s treatment of his dogs was cruel even by dog-fighting standards. Pay Vick if he must be paid, but keep him off the playing field. And if the combination of a starry-eyed jury and a pricey attorney manages to get an acquittal, as in the case of O. J. Simpson, keep him off the field still.

The only reason professional athletes are paid the kind of money they are is because they serve as our society’s heroes. It isn’t just appropriate, but necessary, that we hold them to a hero’s standards regarding obeying the law, honesty, fair play, and the treatment of those who are weaker than they or who depend upon them. This includes animals. And it means that Michael Vick, among others, should not have the opportunity to get his picture on a Wheaties box.


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