Former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick has been conditionally reinstated to the National Football League and signed last week with the Philadelphia Eagles.
What will happen to Vick in his quest to play professional football again? Should we care about a jock who threw away a 10-year, $130 million contract by getting himself convicted for involvement in an interstate dogfighting ring? The Eagles are giving Vick a second chance. Should fans give Vick a chance to redeem himself?
Because I detest Vick's kind of swaggering, arrogant, self-absorbed athlete, I did not think about the disgraced quarterback and his post-Leavenworth troubles until readers sent e-mails asking me to comment — and the Rev. Jesse Jackson caused a media uproar (again) when he suggested similarities between Vick's plight and that of baseball legend Jackie Robinson.
In fairness, however, I believe that Vick deserves a second chance to play NFL football. The young man has paid his legal debt to society, serving his time in federal prison and expressing remorse. I must acknowledge that my opinion is influenced by the faith Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy has in Vick. Dungy has spent more time with Vick than ordinary detractors who want the former star banished to a virtual leper colony.
While announcing his conditional reinstatement of Vick, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told him: "I urge you to take full advantage of the resources available to support you and to dedicate yourself to rebuilding your life and your career. If you do this, the NFL will support you."
One of those resources is Dungy. As a condition for full reinstatement, Vick had to accept Dungy as a mentor. Goodell could not have picked a better person to help Vick get on the road to redemption and to become a role model for other athletes of similar background and temperament. During his 28 years as a coach, Dungy showed that he is an excellent judge of character. Without the obligatory screaming and profanity of the trade, he molded several of the league's "bad boys" into loyal team players and law-abiding citizens off the field.
Dungy also works with high school students and prison inmates, stressing — with his own life as an example — the importance of personal responsibility and intelligent decisions.
Shortly after visiting Vick in prison in May, Dungy wrote an article for Sports Illustrated commenting on the encounter with the inmate, on Vick's lack of wholesome parenting as a child and on his hopes for the young man: "I'm concerned about Michael Vick's life, not his career. And Michael's future, just like those of thousands of other inmates around the country, is worth saving. … Michael certainly had the benefit of many support people in college and the NFL. But our decisionmaking processes are formed much earlier than that.
"I firmly believe Michael deserves a second chance in life. I understand how appalling dogfighting is, and in no way do I condone it. But he was given a punishment that the court deemed appropriate, and now he exits prison having paid for that crime. It's time to let him bounce back after that loss. If we are willing to forgive Michael and take an honest look at the person who is leaving that prison, we might be surprised at what we see. We might see a man who says 'I'm sorry' with his actions and not just his words. We might see a man who wants to get back to his three children and stop the cycle of young people growing up without a father to help them.
"Least important, we might see him play football again. I'm not sure of the Michael Vick we would see on the field, but I believe we would see a very different person off the field. That's what would be exciting to me."
National Public Radio's Steve Inskeep asked Dungy if he would sign Vick if he still were coaching the Indianapolis Colts. "My idea was to always look them in the eye and see if they've grown from it, see if I believed in them as a person," Dungy said, recalling his experiences with many other troubled players. "After being around Mike for two or three months … I think he's learned from this. So if I were there, I would take a chance on him."
All Dungy can do is talk to Vick and try to lead by example. Only Vick has the power to alter his self-destructive behavior and 'hood attitude.
With the Eagles, Vick will have double duty: He must show on the field that he is still on his extraordinary game, that he can win back fans. And, as Dungy suggests, he must show away from the field that he is a changed person — one who has grown up and has learned useful lessons from his mistakes.