Making Sense Of The ‘New’ Michael Vick Experience

ESPN has certainly hitched its’ promotional wagon to Michael Vick, but first things first: don’t blame Touré for the question, “What If Michael Vick Were White?” – or for that pic above of said hypothetical “White” Vick.

“I had no knowledge of or say in the title of the story and the horrific, misguided picture of Vick in whiteface, which dismayed and disgusted me when I saw it,” he explained in a column for CNN. “I think careful readers will note that the story and the image don’t really interact. They’re like two people who kinda know about each other but don’t really know each other. But this has happened to me before.”

He made a similar disclaimer on Twitter, according to Colorlines:

My essay on Vick is nowhere near as inflammatory as the pic of him in whiteface which contradicts me saying you can’t imagine him as white.

I wrote an essay about Vick & race. ESPN the mag titled it & added art without me (normal procedure). Judge me on the story not the art.

In his CNN piece, Touré also mentioned that he wanted to talk about football more in his Vick column, but that ESPN “was less interested in that.” Reading his essay on the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback again, I think his editors let him down in the process.

Touré’s column starts by describing the “deeply African-American approach” of Vick’s game:

Vick’s style reminds me of Allen Iverson — the speed, the court sense, the sharp cuts, the dekes, the swag. In those breathtaking moments when the Eagles QB abandons the pocket and takes off, it feels as if he’s thumbing his nose at the whole regimented, militaristic ethos of the game.

Denied the chance to place Vick’s game into a historical context, this graf makes Vick seem like the NFL’s answer to Julius Erving, when really he’s not even the first mobile black quarterback on his own team. Surely Touré didn’t forget about Donovan McNabb or Randall Cunningham?

Instead, it’s David Fleming who gets to make that connection in an otherwise hagiographic profile of Vick’s comeback, mentioning that he has become “the next link in a quarterback chain that runs from Fran Tarkenton to John Elway to Steve Young to Randall Cunningham.”

Crucially, three of the four quarterbacks in that chain are white. And all but Cunningham are in the NFL Hall of Fame. What would probably be different, if Vick were white, would be that the gaggle of football pundits ESPN employs to opine on the National Football League – always referred to by its’ first, middle and last name, like it was an unruly child or a serial killer – would frame his exploits differently: instead of showing “preternatural poise,” as Fleming puts it, White Vick’s mobility would show “how hard he works in the off-season;” his on-field celebrations would show us he’s “just having fun out there.” And so on.

So what Vick is doing on the field isn’t new; he’s just doing it at a higher level than anybody else right now – in large part because he’s a team that encourages him to do so, a fact Vick himself acknowledges (even if, as he told GQ, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell nudged him in Philadelphia’s direction.) So it’s unfortunate that Touré didn’t get the chance to discuss Vick’s professional good fortune in his column.

It’s also unfortunate his editors stuck that column with not only the re-colorized Vick pic, but a headline asking a question Touré himself shoots down:

This question makes me cringe. It is so facile, naive, shortsighted and flawed that it is meaningless. Whiteness comes with great advantages, but it’s not a get-out-of-every-crime-free card. Killing dogs is a heinous crime that disgusts and frightens many Americans. I’m certain white privilege would not be enough to rescue a white NFL star caught killing dogs.

The problem with the “switch the subject’s race to determine if it’s racism” test runs much deeper than that. It fails to take into account that switching someone’s race changes his entire existence. In making Vick white, you have him born to different parents. That alone sets his life trajectory in an entirely different direction.

But would it, really? I’m not so sure, and neither is Caperton at Feministe:

Switching someone’s race does not change his “entire existence” – it changes his race. And that’s not for nothing. Take a guy in Michael Vick’s childhood neighborhood and turn him white, and he’s going to have different experiences than his black neighbors. Pick any white kid at an almost entirely white high school and turn him black, and his experiences will be different from those of his classmates and of kids at majority-black schools. But that’s not everything. It’s not the entirety of existence. Flipping a man’s race switch from black to white doesn’t also put him in a four-bedroom home in Peoria with a CPA for a father, a librarian for a mother, a brother, a sister, and a pomapoo, and it doesn’t stop an indescribably busted person from torturing dogs in his swimming pool for fun and profit.

Touré claims to have speculated, “What if Michael Vick were white?” He really speculated, “What if Michael Vick grew up in a two-parent home in a better neighborhood with better friends and no dogfighters around?” and then assigned that as his working definition of “white.” In his mind, White Michael Vick never would have had a dogfighting ring in the first place, because in his whiteness he would have grown up free of the poverty, negligence, and violence that defines Being Black.

Touré, in fact, asks a question similar to Caperton’s later in his ESPN piece: “If Vick grew up with the paternal support that white kids are more likely to have (72 percent of black children are born to unwed mothers compared with 29 percent of white children), would he have been involved in dogfighting?”

Though that “72 percent born to unwed mothers” stat is questionable, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote two years ago, it’s not guaranteed that a two-parent household would have dissuaded White Vick from doing something criminally wrong away from the field, as Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger has (allegedly) shown us. If Vick’s dog-fighting operation had been located in the right county, he might have run into an (allegedly) more-forgiving police force. But how much of that is race and how much of that is geography?

In the end of his ESPN column, Touré asks us to look at Vick as “someone in the third act of the epic movie that is his life,” calling his return “heroic.” Personally, I can’t go that far – not just because of what he’s done, but because of moments like this one, captured by GQ’s Will Leitch, who talked to Vick after the quarterback is asked at a speaking engagement, “Are you mad about what happened to you?”:

I ask him if he buys this argument, if he believes he was treated unfairly. Most people convicted of dogfighting don’t spend a year and a half in prison. They aren’t forced to declare bankruptcy. I ask him if he was sent to prison for too long.

“One day in prison is too long,” he says.

Yes, but I mean for this particular crime.

He sighs. I’m not the first person who’s tried to lead him down this road. “For a while, it was all ‘Scold Mike Vick, scold Mike Vick, just talk bad about him, like he’s not a person,’ ” he says. “It’s almost as if everyone wanted to hate me. But what have I done to anybody? It was something that happened, and it was people trying to make some money.”

See, no matter what ESPN wants to tell us, there is a middle ground when it comes to Vick. Nobody can deny his ability, his intelligence, or his dedication to getting his career and his life back. But white, brown or black, remorse is remorse. And not even a Super Bowl trophy can make its’ apparent absence in that explanation any shinier.

  • Monica

    A really interesting piece -can we have more sports commentary? I’d like to hear your thoughts on major league baseball teams doing “It Gets Better” ads, I don’t think any NFL team has done one…Although I’m really appreciative of all the MLB teams that have done one, they’re usually advertised as anti-bullying campaigns, not anti-gay bullying