So Michael Vick is an Eagle now. That's ok with me. I'm a Giants fan. Or I was a Giants fan, when I could stand to follow pro football. For a long time now, I haven't been able to bring myself to watch more than a few games a season. These days, I feel nearly as out-of-place at a Super Bowl party as I would at an Oscar party.
Here in the DC area, the Redskins religion has begun its sacramental advent count-down to opening Sunday. I wish I could share the excitement. Part of the problem is that I'm a natural contrarian. Everybody loves football, so I don't. Also, I'm a baseball fan (in a town largely devoid of them). The end of summer means my season's running down, while theirs is pumping up.
But the problem is more involved. See, I love the game of football. But I loathe how and by whom it is played at the professional level. I don't like the hype and the spectacle and the production – the computer generated “Transformers”-type robots Fox uses in commercial bumpers. And I can't believe I'm the only one who thinks Hank Jr.'s “Monday Night” theme song gets a little more embarrassing every year.
Part and parcel to the whole “bread and circuses” vibe that accompanies the season is that the league and the teams no longer just tolerate poor sportsmanship – they encourage it. A couple of seasons ago I watched in disbelief as a new threshold was reached: on a broken field return or run, a player began blowing kisses to his teammates on the sideline at the 40-yard line. And he was a rookie. If cosmic justice applied to something as inconsequential as sports, some defender would have turned on the afterburners and given him a painful, humiliating comeuppance. But the rookie scored, his hubris was rewarded, and he learned nothing.
Contrast that with baseball. Perhaps that same year, a rookie named Lastings Milledge was dressed down by Mets manager Willie Randolph for running over to celebrate a home run with the crowd at Shea. To this day, the worst you'll see in a baseball game is a hitter posing for a second as he watches his ball clear the fence. Heaven knows baseball has its share of miscreants and dopers and pampered slugs that won't run out grounders, but compared with football, its on-field codes of behavior are almost touching.
It's telling that the networks agonize over whether to show football players in post-game prayer groups, but they can't get enough dancing and clowning in the end zone. Rewarding that bumping and grinding has led to players celebrating doing the job they're paid to do, play after play. Remember the trend that took hold back in the '90s, in which players would take off their helmets after a good play so the camera could drink in their beauty? Football is fundamentally about team effort. Personal athleticism is far less important to sustained success than is iron discipline – especially at the pro level, where everyone is a great athlete. Except maybe the kickers.
Make a goal line stand, jump in the air, pump your fist. Score a touchdown? High-five your teammates and get off the field. Chest-thumping and gyrating between plays is anathema. Football is not about self-expression.
Football and other sports have the great power to lift some young men out of the poverty and dysfunction. But football allows itself to be dragged down there by others. For all the monstrous sadism of his crimes, Michael Vick hardly makes an FBI most-wanted list of current NFL players. The Internet is rife with “All-Criminal NFL Fantasy” teams and running lists of current and former all-pro offenders. For many of those players, nobody's ever demanded they be anything else. Beginning when they're “student athletes,” football and basketball players are courted, coddled and made to understand that the rules don't apply to them. (Perhaps one reason Major League Baseball looks like a troop of Eagle Scouts by comparison is that left fielders make lousy “Big Men on Campus,” and the minor leagues offer guys ample chance to screw up their lives before they become famous.)
The notoriously liberal sports media (Keith Olbermann came from ESPN) fans the hype and shrugs at the thugs. The job of color announcers and beat writers is not to do serious criminal reporting, and certainly not to target ball players like they're Bush administration officials. Yet it's hard not to get the sense that, as long as the players entertain, it's impolite to mention their felonies.
But there's a 6'5”, 350-lb elephant in the room. It's got a 40”vertical leap, a rap sheet to match, and the moral maturity of a five-year-old. It plays linebacker, or wide receiver, or tight end, or offensive guard. It's got plenty of money, plenty of yes-men, and a fawning public. All it hears are the cheers.
The truth is, if you're really scandalized by Michael Vick's return to football, you don't understand that it's exactly where he belongs.