Michael Vick, as most everyone knows by now, signed with the Steelers to back up Ben Roethlisberger. To say that he was reviled before he put ink to paper to commit his services to the team would be a massive understatement.
A check of twitter Tuesday morning, after news broke that Vick was visiting the Steelers, would have yielded an incendiary mix of fans swearing off watching the team for good, complaining about the franchise’s lost integrity, or going the extra mile and pledging their allegiance to all AFC North teams except Pittsburgh.
Viewed outside the maelstrom that surrounded his signing, Michael Vick is nothing more than a high-profile insurance policy, one whose presence on this roster was made necessary by Bruce Gradkowski’s hand surgery, and Landry Jones’ being Landry Jones.
But people don’t by and large care about the angle of this story that concerns Michael Vick, the football player. The faithful are far more concerned with Michael Vick, the convicted felon. Michael Vick, the dogfighter. Michael Vick, the symbol of all that is irredeemable and evil in this world.
That last one is made up, obviously, but it is a pretty accurate statement on how a vocal segment of the population views him.
It’s a curious thing, really. Killing and torturing innocent, trusting, unconditionally loving dogs is an awful, evil thing to do, but Vick did his time. He was incarcerated and bankrupted, then released after a year and a half behind bars and has since stayed mostly out of the limelight. He has spoken repeatedly on behalf of the Humane Society, and has, by all accounts, talked the talk and walked the walk.
Michael Vick, to all appearances, is proof that sometimes, the system works. Criminals are rehabilitated. They accept their wrongdoing and make an effort to change for the better. Certainly Vick’s situation is different than most; his skill set dictated that he would get another shot in the league, and his marketability and earning potential (both for himself and others) dictated that a team of PR professionals would help him say and do all the right things in public.
That doesn’t seem to matter to folks that would rather see him wither and fade away, and be given no opportunity to make a living he has every right to pursue. Some of these same fans, the ones who will never watch the Steelers again because of the guy that will wear a baseball cap and hold a clipboard, are all too happy to cheer for James Harrison, who was charged with slapping his girlfriend across the face during a dispute in March 2008. The charge later was dropped.
Some of the same people questioning everything the Rooney family purports to stand for because of Vick’s presence don’t feel the least bit squeamish, don’t have the slightest compunction about rooting on Ben Roethlisberger, whose behavior in a bar in Georgia five years ago was drunken and boorish at best, and possibly worse — though no one will ever know for sure.
This is the message being sent by that crowd, no matter how they try to spin it: Violence against a woman is within the limits of what we will tolerate from our star athletes. An alleged incident of sexual violence, at the very least loutish behavior involving a woman is OK. It will be accepted, and forgotten about as soon as it is convenient to.
Or maybe the real message here is that Michael Vick doesn’t figure to play much, if at all, for the Steelers, and fans know that. They know that Vick is a backup to one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and if all goes well, he won’t go near the field. Perhaps they feel a little bit bolder about taking a strong moral stand because they know they won’t have to face the internal conflict of cheering for Vick, because he likely won’t have any affect on the team’s fortunes this year.
That’s really the bottom line in all of this. Just as the “Steeler Way” is a bogus notion where the front office is concerned, so too is it a laughable, antiquated concept when it comes to fans. The Steelers will keep almost any player regardless of the trouble they get in, so long as the belief exists that said player can help the team. A majority of fans will root for any player, no matter what the transgression, so long as that player remains a key contributor.
There is no “Steeler Way”. The outcry against Michael Vick from some corners of the fan base isn’t a principled moral stand. It’s an emotional reaction against someone who did something extremely unpleasant, but more importantly, likely won’t be a factor for this year’s team.
If the signing of Michael Vick was what caused you to draw a line in the sand and end your relationship with the Steelers, I have but one question.
What took you so long?