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Michael Vick

The Ball Court at Chichen Itza

Unfortunately, I teach on Monday nights, so I wasn’t able to watch Michael Vick’s titanic performance against the Redskins this past Monday. I watched the highlight reels, however, and read the stories, and listened to the chatter around the proverbial water cooler, and did not feel a mote of discomfort, other than regret that I had missed the game. Before I explain, just in case there’s anyone reading this who isn’t familiar with the Michael Vick story–unlikely, I know–let me sum it up: one of the most physically gifted athletes in NFL history liked to watch dogs destroy each other for fun, and if the dogs he owned performed poorly in the ring, he helped electrocute, hang, drown, or shoot them. Gruesome stuff, something you might see in a Faces of Death movie or in a suggestively edited introduction to a cinema villain: cut to savage and barely restrained dogs, cut to well-suited man with wicked grin, close on his black eyes as we hear the dog’s chains released, then just his eyes as we follow the murderous combat in his pupils–bark-bark–growl–snap–sound-effects lunge–sound-effects tear–growl–yelp–whimper–silence. The end result, we’re ready to watch the hero use whatever means necessary to bring this villain to heel. Well, after a year-and-a-half in prison, Vick’s back, and he’s playing like a demon. The problem is, of course, athletes are supposed to be the heroes.

I’m far from the first person to wrestle with this dilemma–the best treatment of which was, I believe, Malcolm Gladwell’s October, 2009 article in The New Yorker. Gladwell, in typical fashion, makes an elegant argument for the tacit connections between our love and treatment of football players, and a dog owner’s love and treatment of their fighting dogs. “In a fighting dog,” he writes, “the quality that is prized above all others is the willingness to persevere, even in the face of injury and pain.” Remind you of anything or anyone? If you’ve ever played a competitive sport, or really, I suppose, just been on the planet for any length of time, you know that the same qualities that are valued in fighting dogs are the values required of all heroes. It’s the heroism that Springsteen sings of, that Larry Bird admired in his father, who would pull a work boot over his broken foot before a full day at the factory rather than stay home, in Brett Favre, whose 2003 Monday Night Football performance the day after his father’s death still turns my eyes glassy; it’s the heroism that bounced Mohammed Ali off the canvas in 1971 at Madison Square Garden and allowed him to finish the 15th round against Joe Frazier; it’s Aung San Suu Kyi fighting Burmese oppression and Milton fighting blindness. That thing that keeps you going, that “I don’t know what” quality, demands admiration. Gladwell, of course, points out that the difference between the above examples and dog fighting is the abuse of that virtue. The dog’s unconditional trust is turned against the animal, used up, beaten, shot. But that’s not the only complication. Dealing with that is the easy part. There’s something harder here, much harder.

That virtue, that “gameness” as dog fighters call it, is also what led Adolf Hitler to continue on after the Beer Hall Putsch. It helped Qin Shi Huang unify China on the backs of the murdered, and inspired the First through Ninth Crusades; it even led Khan to blow up the Genesis device at the end of Star Trek II. In fact, if we can cut to that shell of a cinematic villain introduced earlier, we recognize that quality in all of our great cinematic villains, the Freddy Kreuger that won’t stay dead, the Hannibal Lecter that won’t stay silent. The problem is that “gameness” is a virtue; it’s just not one we’re comfortable with. We like the 13th century version of virtue, the Christian virtue of meekness, goodness, rectitude; but “gameness” is closer to virtus, the latin root for virtue, meaning strength and power. And when we look for the first in the second, as we do with our athletes, we become lost.

We watch sports for a variety of reasons, but it is clear that we do it for more than entertainment–no one riots over puppet shows. Sports have been around for a pretty long time, at least 5,000 years, and are often connected with religious ritual: the Mesoamerican ballgame, for example. They are also, quite often, violent. African stick fighters will brave severe mutilation and even death in order to prove themselves. Why? Because a great stick fighter earns security for his children and fidelity from his wife. He brings home the bacon, so to speak. There is a reason sport is a cultural universal. Cultures must provide acceptable expressions of the violent impulse in order to survive. Just as a successful predator secures survival through strength–both physical and mental–a successful athlete secures laurels; liberated by society from the basics of survival, athletes become like kings, and, occasionally, queens. Put simply, sport is a culturally conditioned outlet for our innate predation. Sport is canonized violence.

It is that capacity for power that serves the athlete, that secures her glory. It is also, what separates sports from the rest of society. Earlier, I mentioned other examples of that same kind of power, examples in the world, off the field: the Gandhis in their unflagging quests, the Stalins in their relentless crusades. They are, however, historical anomalies. The world’s shifting alliances and diplomatic deceptions reward the mouse far more often than they reward the lion. Even the most physically talented athlete must have a killer lurking in his brain, a bit of cruelty in his chest; if he doesn’t, he’s a Chris Webber, a Jim Kelly, a LeBron James–all men I would rather have a beer with than a Bryant or a Favre, but not men I would bet on in a dog fight.

7 Responses to Michael Vick

  1. Greenbaum says:

    On average, men and women have a different view of whether or not Vick the marvelous gladiator and Vick the evil dog-killer are separate people. As the Nike/Barkley ad goes, “I am not a role model”. There does not appear to be as much of a gender gap when it comes to the view of the female athlete. The female athlete is held to a higher expectation both on and off the field. Two events come to mind, the Zola Budd/Mary Decker incident, and more recently the NCAA women’s soccer player who captured attention by playing rough and “cheating” beyond a level of acceptability. They both must be evil in real life too. More interesting is when the genders collide in sport, as when Danica Patrick stomped out of her car and got in the face of another driver for unfairly taking her out of the race. Her expectations of racing etiquette and how that is carried through were much different than the male field. Though my thought is far from original and not quite succinct, the point I’m trying to make is that the “innate predation” differs greatly between men and women. My wife’s interpretation of this article would be far different than mine.

    For me, I was nodding to your blog all the way in agreement and especially found your last line spot on and quite frankly a gem. My wife, not so much.

    • C.T. Webb says:

      Completely agree. Women in sports, and women’s assessments of sports, are often a different bag. To make your point further, I remember an interview with, I believe, Jennifer Capriati’s teenage coach, who said that the most difficult thing to teach a young female tennis player is to take advantage of an opponent’s weakness–to go for the jugular. The only thing I can offer to rescue my observation from simple gender bias is that, perhaps, sports, like society, has a variety of commitments; just because we go to the supermarket and pick out steaks for dinner, thinking of our family all the way, doesn’t mean cows weren’t slaughtered to get us there. We might not be the butchers, be we love the meat.

      It’s a little thin, I know, and I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by my own analogy.

      Thanks for the comment, David.

  2. Pete Schelden says:

    Is Nietzsche lurking somewhere in that comparison of values? I think some of this comes from a value crisis the West has been struggling with ever since its navigational tact allowed it to find, then eventually conquer, most of the globe. Did the 13th-century virtues of meekness and humility we value so much in our heroes evaporated with Cortez? Are there echoes of conquest in our bloodthirst, our enjoyment of sports like boxing and football that we know lead to permanent brain injury in a high percentage of its competitors?

    Are we as civil as we like to think? Or is that kernel of cruelty alive in all of us, Chris Webber, Kobe Bryant, you, me and everyone we know?

    The modern project is about conquering ourselves. That’s why liberalism feels unnatural, and why conservative values, along with conservative politics, find such natural, broad appeal, I think.

    • C.T. Webb says:

      Hoozah! Yes, in answer to your first question–absolutely. In fact, if I had more space than the self-imposed 1000 word limit, I would have discussed Nietzsche explicitly. As for your other questions, it comes as no surprise, I’m sure, that I think we are far from progressing beyond our darker appetites. That’s not the whole story, though; the fact that meekness is a virtue proves otherwise–much to Nietsche’s chagrin.

      Your observation regarding the broad appeal of conservative values seems spot on to me, but it leaves a lot of room for latitude, since progressive ideas have found fertile soil in a variety of cultures and historical circumstances. The only thing I would add is that I wonder if the “human project” isn’t about conquering ourselves, rather than just the “modern project.” It’s a minor distinction, I know, but I think it helps us avoid the sense that we are 21st-century-special

  3. Angela says:

    Maybe I’m an idealist, or maybe this just takes more self-mastery than most people are capable of, but I want more of Tom Brady and Derek Jeter – athletes who shine on and off the field, full of competitive vigor but who channel it properly. I grew up being taught that sportsmanship – and not just winning – was the most important thing, and not just because I’m a girl either. That doesn’t mean that you don’t use your opponent’s weakness to win – but it does mean that you offer them a hand up after slamming them to the ground. To try to beat your tennis opponent every shot – but be honest when a ball is in and gets called out, too. To be the best, you have to play the best when they are at their best – and beat them, fair and square. With that said, I enjoy watching Vick’s immense talents on the field as much as anyone. I just can’t root for him.

    • C.T. Webb says:

      You make a great point, and one that is a convincing recommendation for the nobility of sports in general. I agree that sportsmanship is laudable, but in the final arbitration between winning and losing, it is a consolation prize. Don’t get me wrong, I’m with you on the Brady, Jeter, Tim Duncan bandwagon, but I think it’s the tumultuous romance between my schizophrenic halves–the side who roots for the lambs dating the side who roots for the lions–that draws me in. I’m still not sure about their compatibility, however.

  4. AsiaBill says:

    Living overseas I’m not as much in touch with such news but do vaguely remember the issue about the athlete’s involvement with dog fighting ruining his career and losing his advertising endorsement contracts. Generally I think most of the popularized American / “western” morality is nothing but self-righteous, white superiority hypocrisy. Like the character, Gordon Ghekko played by Michael Douglas’ one liner in the film, “Wall Street” something like “want a friend? buy a dog cause Wasps hate people but love their pets”. Living and traveling in the developing aka “third world” has completely altered the morals, values and perspective I was taught growing up in the middle of nowhere midwestern USA. The modern world has elevated athletics and the financial compensation of star athletes to such incredible amounts countless millions of young people are inspired by the income potential more than the spirit of the game. In a perfect world war would be obsolete and nationalistic pride and dominance as well as each individual’s desire to dominate and be respected by their peers would be awarded on one of the many playing fields. Each of us wants to feel like a winner; such is human nature. The American Way may becoming obsolete and replaced with the Chinese Way or the “B.R.I.C.” way when the consumers of such countries out spend Americans. It’s all about the money, having enough to provide for one’s family and being empowered enough to live as freely as we choose each day we wake up.

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