Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Fans should be used to rooting for players with baggage

Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015, 10:27 p.m.

Sports-talk radio went wild Tuesday with news of reformed dog killer Michael Vick working out for the Steelers.

I was present at the epicenter of what one colleague labeled “The Michael Vick Apocalypse.” Some vowed to burn their jerseys, others to sell their tickets. One man said he'd have a Steelers tattoo scraped from his leg.
I doubt much will come of it now that Vick has signed a one-year deal. But that's what they said.

I asked PETA for its official stance on Vick. It replied with the following statement from senior vice president Lisa Lange: “As long as he's throwing a football and not electrocuting a dog, PETA is pleased he is focused on his game.”

I don't begrudge any of those people their feelings. Michael Vick committed unspeakable acts, for which he was prosecuted eight years ago and spent 21 months in a federal prison.

Going back and reading about Bad Newz Kennels, the dogfighting ring Vick funded, is enough to make one ill. Vick admitted to participating in the destruction of multiple dogs. In some instances that meant the hanging, electrocuting, shooting or drowning of pit bulls bred to fight.

Though I am not a dog person, I'm well aware of what dogs mean to people, to families. I see how my 6-year-old daughter reacts to them and how they react to her. I understand. I couldn't blame anyone for never forgiving Vick.

But I also wonder: If you are inclined to disavow the Steelers on account of detestable player behavior, why did you wait until Michael Vick came to town?

The Steelers, like every NFL team — like many companies — are not averse to retaining employees guilty of heinous actions.

Vick isn't the only guy in that locker room with a past.

Now, I'm not here to distinguish human abuse from animal abuse. I just believe that once a person does his time, he deserves a second chance. Vick got his with the Philadelphia Eagles, then with the New York Jets, and did everything he was supposed to do.

I also believe that at some point many of us sign a contract with the sports devil. We keep rooting for our teams knowing they are bound to employ unsavory characters — or at least characters who have committed unsavory acts — for the sake of success.

Professional football is a power play, not a morality play. Teams sacrifice ethics in the pursuit of victory. If you don't accept those terms, I will assume you stopped watching a long time ago.

It's pretty clear why the Steelers are willing to tolerate whatever backlash comes their way: They were desperate for a backup quarterback.

Landry Jones is improving but not to the point where any rational person would trust him to win a game. Presumed No. 2 quarterback Bruce Gradkowski was put on injured reserve.

Vick, 35, was the best option out there. He can still play, as evidenced by his winning performance against the Steelers last season.

As linebacker Sean Spence put it, “He's a savvy quarterback who can get the job done.”

In the locker room, it seems clear, Vick's past won't matter. Cam Heyward spoke to that, as did Ramon Foster and others, all saying Vick would be well regarded. Brandon Boykin played with Vick in Philadelphia and said his history was never a hint of an issue.

Even Ben Roethlisberger, whose charity work with police dogs is well known, endorsed the move, which at the time was still pending.

“This is about football,” Roethlisberger said, “and that's what matters most to me.”

What matters most to you? After Vick's final game in Philly, brilliantly captured the moral conundrum he presents. It spoke of Vick donating his time and money to the Humane Society and demonstrating contrition for his crimes.

It offered this, too: “There are plenty who think Vick's soul is rotten and (his contrition is) a con job, the desperate posturing of a sociopath willing to do or say anything to survive and generate income. It comes down to whether you're inclined see the good or bad in people.”

That, and whether you're inclined to accept the reality of professional sports. If you never signed that deal with the devil, good for you.

I'll assume you stopped watching a long time ago.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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