When it’s come to writing about touchy and/or controversial points in my editorial style posts, I come in with an open mind, and generally play devil’s advocate. You saw it when I defended John Rocker’s steroid comments, defended Geno Smith and EJ Manuel, when I voiced my support for the Redskin name, when I ran a big risk by voicing my opinion on gay athletes like Jason Collins and Michael Sam, and most recently, my defense of Jets general manager John Idzik’s offseason strategy. Now, I step into yet another touchy subject: Michael Vick.
We all know the story, gifted athletic quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, had a couple minor incidents early in his career, then in 2007, it was discovered that Vick had financed a dogfighting operation out of a Virginia property he owned, as well as personally killing dogs. Long story short, he was arrested, incarcerated for 18 months, let go, found himself back in the NFL, resurrected his career, and on March 21st, signed a contract with the Jets.
The feeling that I get among Jets fans is that it’s a mix of support and outright disgust. Some people like the idea of Vick stepping in as either a mentor to Geno Smith, or an insurance policy should he get hurt or have another meltdown. Then of course there are those who feel that the signing of Vick prevents them from being Jets fans, period. There have been plenty of comments on Facebook, Twitter, any social media site or comment board has a good amount of fans saying that they will “boycott the team unless the Jets cut that ——–” and that “I love dogs, I loved the Jets”. Pretty much, the idea here is that Vick is a bad idea because of something he did in his past which was off-the-field.
As a pet owner, although it’s cats, not dogs, that I like, when I heard what Vick had done in 2007, I was appalled, disgusted, and disturbed. Animals do not deserve to be treated that way, and for people to finance an operation and also personally kill animals for sport is vile. I was glad that he was going to prison. So what if he had game changing speed or a good throwing arm? The man let his off field actions speak louder than his on field actions, and unfortunately those off field actions involved killing animals.
When Vick was released from prison in 2009, I was slightly apprehensive. 18 months for killing multiple animals was a slap on the wrist, but apparently it changed him. A man who was once viewed as a moneymaker, a marketing boon was now a pariah, broke and abandoned.
When Vick signed with Philadelphia, I had no opinion. Yes, he had found a team that was perfectly willing to let the past be the past and see what he still had in the tank. Granted, it was Philadelphia, the same city known for booing Santa Claus, throwing batteries, booing and cheering injured players, having the most unruly fans (I can attest to that, having nearly gotten crushed by a throng of rabid Phillies fans who wanted Jim Thome’s autograph), and essentially being the cesspool of North American sports, but still, if he could make it back in Philadelphia, then he could make it anywhere. What ended up happening showed that Vick still had his athletic traits in him. He brought Philadelphia to the playoffs in 2010, and completely torched the Washington Redskins along the way on Sunday Night Football, just in case people forgot, and served as an effective replacement for Donovan McNabb and failed franchise savior Kevin Kolb.
Off the field, Vick rehabilitated his image, becoming an advocate against animal cruelty, returning to his former status, essentially the protests that Vick was an animal killer were pretty much silent, save for one game in Oakland, and a few bad-taste jokes, as well as the infamous “Hide your Beagle, Vick’s an Eagle” from opposing fans.
Vick also matured on the field. When he got hurt in 2013, and Nick Foles took his stead, he showed his support for the move. Now, to be displaced by a young quarterback is obviously not fun, but for Vick, who had been viewed somewhat as a character concern, the fact that he took it in stride really showed growth.
I find it particularly odd now that Vick has signed with a new team, that people are bringing back the past, and that people are so upset. Then again, signing with a team in the largest media market is obviously going to have its share of polarizing opinion. Detractors and so-called fans are now ripping the team to shreds, dropping their allegiance because they still can’t cope with what he did a long time ago. Is it that hard to move on? Has he permanently earned the epithet Dog-killer despite the fact that he’s paid his debt to society?
Let me give you my feelings on the situation. I forgave him a long time ago. However, I’m not going to forget what he did. Some people have told me that there are two things that are unforgivable: killing children and killing animals. And rightfully so. However, as a Catholic, one of the biggest things you learn is to forgive, to hate the sin, not the sinner. You forgive people because what is the hatred going to accomplish? Is calling for Vick’s head going to bring back every dog he killed? Is it going to get the Jets to void his contract and put him behind bars on a life sentence? Obviously not.
Furthermore, to drop your allegiance with your football team because of the actions of one player is outright foolishness. Is associating with Vick going to make Eric Decker, Geno Smith, Mo Wilkerson or Rex Ryan an advocate for dogfighting? How about Woody Johnson, John Idzik, or even Roger Goodell, for that matter?
Jets fans should know that there is at least one positive result of Vick’s signing; Mark Sanchez getting cut, saving the team an additional $8 million in cap room, which $5 million was used for Vick’s one-year deal. Plus, Geno Smith is essentially a younger, more malleable version of Vick. Having a mentor whose prime is essentially your ceiling is going to be a huge benefit for Smith.
Back to the fans though. You don’t necessarily have to forgive Vick for what he did, Obviously what he did was outright despicable. Heck, you don’t even have to like Vick for his football skills now. He’s not what he was back in 2004, or 2010. But still, think rationally, not emotionally. Emotion driven decisions rarely succeed and make people look bad, but thinking with a clear mind does increase the success of your decisions. What happens if Vick does end up helping Geno, or in the worst case, comes out in relief and brings the Jets to the playoffs? What now? If you’ve decided to boycott the team and/or drop you allegiance because of your moralism, what do you do? Do you admit that you were wrong? Do you miss out just because of the past actions of one man?
While it personally disgusts me that fans can’t let the past be the past and are letting emotion get the best of them, I realize that my words serve little purpose other than to highlight what’s going on. I’m not going to call anyone out for their opinion. They have a right to it. However, I will call people out on their stupidity. And if you’re going to make that rash of an emotionally charged decision, then I personally think you are stupid. You don’t have to forget what Vick did, but you can at least support your team.
Gay athletes came to the forefront of the sports world this past week when basketball player Jason Collins signed a ten day contract with the Brooklyn Nets and played in his first game since he publicly came out. In another sport, University of Missouri linebacker Michael Sam, who also publicly came out, participated in the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. While both were greeted by a warm reception by the media and the fans, both had different endings to their storyline. Collins had a good game despite scoring no points against the Lakers, while Sam had a disastrous NFL Combine which in all likelihood affected his draft stock.
This comes down to the question, how do we tell if a gay athlete is ready to handle the spotlight?
Personally I’m okay with a gay athlete playing a team sport. It’s not exactly a new thing, before the NBA and NFL had their gay athletes, the WNBA was the place for a gay athlete to play. Stars like Brittney Griner, Cheryl Swoopes, and countless others were well publicised gay athletes, and no one cared. But now, we enter the question of how a gay athlete in the Big Four is accepted, and how he handles the additional media scrutiny.
The NBA and the NFL are two completely different leagues. If they were on a political spectrum, the NBA would be more liberal, while the NFL would be conservative. The NBA is more receptive to change, while the NFL is more hesitant. Jason Collins was accepted immediately by the league, new commissioner Adam Silver, and the fans. And here’s the best part. Collins decided once he came out, he’d stop piggybacking on it. It took him months to find a job after coming out, but when asked, he didn’t complain about being discriminated.In addition, he also played it off as normal on his return. His teammates also didn’t make a big show of it either, indicating that while the occasion was memorable, it wasn’t supposed to be treated like the President coming to town. For that I applaud Collins. In my mind, I think being a gay athlete is fine, so long as you don’t use it to get along. If you want to play a sport, play a sport, but don’t use something like your sexual orientation to advance your cause. Also, timing is everything. Had Collins done this at a more inopportune time, it would have put more pressure on teams to sign him, more controversy on him, and all in all, it would have been an ugly mess. Collins choosing now to come out was probably the best thing for him, the NBA, and everybody associated with basketball.
This brings me to Michael Sam.
Before I begin, let me preface this by saying that I mean no malice when I analyze Sam. I am in no way homophobic, in fact I have friends who are gay who would probably agree with what I’m saying. I am just pointing out the difference between him and Collins. I am saying this because I don’t want to hear any vitriolic comments from people on Reddit or Facebook or Twitter or any other sports site saying that I’m a a homophobic nutjob, that I’m an unprintable word, that I should be banned from writing. etc. If you’re going to be offended, that’s fine, but don’t blackball me for presenting an analysis and having an opinion.
When Michael Sam came out, I knew that he had chosen the wrong time to do so. By coming out before the combine and the workouts, before the Draft even, he was going to be subject to a firestorm of media coverage. I knew that maybe Sam would be able to handle the media, after all, Missouri had come off an excellent year, Sam had been named SEC defensive player of the year, and looked like a decent mid round pick, he probably had some media exposure before, not a lot. Still, the choice to come out before being auditioned to the NFL put unnessecary attention and overwhelming pressure on him.
When Sam came to Indianapolis to audition, he was projected as a mid round pick. When he left, after an unimpressive combine, his draft stock had taken a tumble. He maybe was an early to mid day 3 now, at the worst, an undrafted free agent. But yet, the media still was on him.
I’m not trying to imply that Sam tried to improve his visibility in order for him to assure himself a job in the NFL, but again, I would point out that coming out before the combine, before the pro day, it was an incredibly risky move that while it looked like a good idea, is starting to blow up in his face.
Remember the big media story last year involving Manti Te’o? About the dead girlfriend hoax? This was at about the same media scrutiny level. What happened after the story came out? Te’o went to the combine, proceeded to fail to impress, and what was once viewed as a first round lock fell to the second round. A guy who was viewed as a potential defensive rookie of the year lock was practically invisible in his first year in San Diego. He was distracted. The fake dead girlfriend story dogged him the entire year, and Te’o had every opportunity to not let it be a distraction, but ultimately, he failed in that regard and made himself out to be a fool.
The NFL is not a fan of distraction. Te’o was a distraction last year, and despite what the NFL wants you to think, Sam is this year. Players that do come with off the field baggage that distracts from football are not in the NFL for long, look at Tim Tebow and Aaron Hernandez if you need reference. If Sam wants a career in the NFL, if he wants to be more than a media target, he’s going to have to deflect the questions on homosexuality. In all likelihood, any interview that Sam has will include questions that pertain to his homosexuality. What he needs to do is brush them off, or if it’s unavoidable, give a generic answer. It will save him the scrutiny, and it will send a message to the media that he doesn’t want this to be as much of a distraction as it has become.
Now, earlier, I posed the point that Sam had picked the worst time to come out, but I never said when I felt Sam would have best chosen his moment. For those who do want to know when the best time would have been, I would have said that he should have waited until his first season in the league. Sam could have spent the season notifying his coaching staff that he was gay, followed by his teammates, then when the season ended, he could have come out publicly. While still a distraction, the resulting media coverage wouldn’t have been so disruptive as it is now. Sam would have been applauded either way, he still would answer questions, but it would have been better for him and for everyone else involved right now if he had waited a little longer.
Instead, there’s almost an added pressure on teams to pick him. While the team that picks him will be given the unfortunate task of dealing with the issue, the other teams will be blasted for not taking a chance on him. And in truth, that’s unfair. Teams may have reasonable excuses to not draft him, “He’s not a scheme fit”, “We felt that there were better prospects at that position”, “We don’t want the media attention”, etc. To provide an example: If a team like the Jets drafted him, it would be a media circus all over again. Jets GM John Idzik wanted the team to get away from the circus label, not to mention the team is already strong enough in regards to its linebacker corps, so despite an endorsement for Sam from coach Rex Ryan, taking him would serve only as a distraction. If Sam is to be drafted, it’s because he’s a football player, not a gay football player.
In conclusion, the way that Jason Collins and Michael Sam have dealt with coming out has been handled differently. While the media has certainly heaped its praise on the situation and the leagues have welcomed them, it is truly up to them to handle their coming out the appropriate way.