How Should Sports Media Acknowledge Michael Vick’s Crimes?

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As a New York Giants fan, it pains me to acknowledge that Michael Vick has had a great season, leading the Philadelphia Eagles to the playoffs and their first NFC East championship since 2006. Interestingly, 2006 was also the last year that Vick played for the Atlanta Falcons before going to prison for 18 months on federal felony charges for his role in an interstate dog fighting ring.

As a dog owner, I had hoped that the National Football League (NFL) would bar Vick from playing professional football again. But apparently NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, like President Obama, believed that Vick deserved a second chance and reinstated him. So the Eagles signed Vick and are now reaping the benefits, as is Vick. He has been named to the Pro Bowl and mentioned as a candidate for the Most Valuable Player award. It’s also thought that he’s a likely shoe-in for Comeback Player of the Year.

But Vick’s success this season has put sports reporters in a difficult position. To what extent should they mention Vick’s criminal record when covering his performance on the field? Given that he pleaded guilty and served his time, should his criminal conduct be mentioned at all?

Jack McCallum, a columnist for Sports Illustrated, recently discussed the dilemma facing sports reporters in covering Vick. In his column, McCallum spelled out some rules for reporters on how to appropriately cover Vick. I think that he made several valid points. For example, I agree with McCallum’s assertion that a sports reporter assigned to cover the weekend’s football games can’t begin every Eagles story with: “Michael Vick, who did jail time for killing dogs, scored two touchdowns and passed for …” But McCallum failed to address some of the nuances of Vick’s situation that warrant mentioning.

Vick is hardly the only NFL player who’s been convicted of a felony and continued to play football. The 1998 book, Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL, shockingly concluded that at least one in five NFL players had been convicted of a serious crime, including assault, homicide, rape, drug possession and DUI.

Since that book was published, NFL players have continued to run afoul of the law. For example, in 2001, Carolina Panther Rae Carruth was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, among other charges, for the killing of his pregnant girlfriend. But as Carruth is currently serving a sentence of 18 to 24 years, coverage of his return to football is moot.

Perhaps the case that bears the closest resemblance to Vick’s situation is that of Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis. In 2000, Lewis was charged with murder in connection with the stabbing deaths of two men outside an Atlanta bar. He claimed that he was merely a bystander, not a participant. Murder charges against him were eventually dropped after he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and testified against his co-defendants.

Much like Vick, Lewis was hounded by negative press and heckling fans when he returned to play football. However, a year later, the Ravens won the Super Bowl and Lewis was named MVP of the game in addition to Defensive Player of the Year. Coverage of his play on the field now rarely mentions his criminal past.

However, Vick’s crime is different from many of the crimes his fellow players have committed. For that reason alone, the media shouldn’t necessarily treat him the same as other football felons.

First, Vick was essentially convicted of running a dog-fighting ring in which dogs were routinely tortured and murdered on property he owned. Some have argued that crimes against humans are more deserving of condemnation than crimes against animals. But I disagree. Dogs are like children. They’re innocent and look to us for protection. Society is justifiably outraged by crimes against children. After all, which crime draws more of a public outcry: the murder of a child or the murder of an adult? Thus, Vick’s participation in the routine torture and killing of innocent animals is especially heinous and deserving of denunciation.

Second, the criminal law distinguishes between various levels of criminal culpability based on the defendant’s mental state or “mens rea.” Thus, crimes based on intentional conduct, such as premeditated murder, are treated more harshly than those based on negligent or reckless conduct, such as vehicular homicide.

Similarly, the media should treat players convicted of intentional criminal conduct more harshly than those who engaged in negligent or reckless conduct. Vick knowingly and intentionally participated over some five years in a ring in which dogs were maimed in vicious fights and, after losing a match or performing poorly in practice sessions, were killed by electrocution, drowning and, in at least one case, by being slammed onto a concrete floor.

What do these acts say about Vick’s moral compass? To suggest that Vick be treated no differently than, say, a player who exercised poor judgment by drinking and driving ignores the significant distinction between these acts.

McCallum observed that the “the dog story is part of the Vick landscape because he made it so.” I agree. To pretend that Vick is just another quarterback ignores a crucial part of his story.

In short, when writing about Vick’s football performance, I think the relevance of his criminal past comes down to context. For example, mentioning his time in jail may not be relevant in discussing his performance during a particular game.

But when it comes to talk of whether Vick should win the Comeback Player of the Year award, his criminal record must be mentioned. After all, the very reason Vick needed to make a comeback was his time in jail, which kept him away from football in the first place.

Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. She worked in the trial division, Serious Offender Unit in the Office of Special Narcotics and Rackets Bureau, where she developed and supervised investigations that targeted high-level narcotics trafficking, gambling and racketeering in the construction industry and related labor unions.

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