Michael Vick, All-Star quarterback and former dog-fighting impresario, is out of prison and has been allowed back into the NFL, with conditions. Tony Dungy, possibly the most respected man in professional football, is personally vouching for him and says he's committed to helping Vick rehabilitate himself, as a player and a man.
Now the frenzy of speculation begins about where Michael Vick will wind up, how long it will take him to get back to pre-prison performance levels, what fans have a right to expect, etc., etc. I can almost hear the collective sigh of relief in the world of sports journalism, because now they can move on from the questions too hard to answer.
Michael Vick was identified as a potential sports star before he was ten years old. He threw more than 400 yards in a game when he was a freshman in high school. He was treated as a star, but he was also schooled in the Church of Football, which gets a little squirrelly about priorities and values. It's not just a game, at that level; listen to the coaches talk and you'll hear it described as war, as life-or-death, as mortal struggle. The players are soldiers sent into battle.
The sports-as-war metaphor is as old as organized sports itself -- but I wonder what effect it has on boys and young men, especially the exceptional athletes. Kids don't always get metaphor. Kids take things literally, and kids don't understand that today's situation will be different tomorrow. In the proper context, that's what sports should teach: some days you win, some days you lose, either way it doesn't kill you or make you a hero.
I'm thinking that Michael Vick didn't learn that, and that this missing piece of information might have had a lot to do with the dog-fighting. So what if dog-fighting was brutal, messy, life-and-death? Isn't that what coaches tell their players about their own lives, their own contests? In fact, I can almost see the appeal of something as brutal and horrifying as dog-fighting to a kid raised on those battle metaphors -- because dog fights aren't metaphors, they're real.
So wherever Michael Vick winds up resuming his NFL career, I hope that the rehabilitation process continues. I hope someone -- maybe Tony Dungy -- continues the conversation with him, about what's real and what's a game and what changes your life and what doesn't. And I hope this is a conversation that children's football coaches remember to have, too.
Five Random Songs
"The Thoughts of Mary Jane," Nick Drake. A song that makes me want to get into the car and drive down some country roads.
"Slop Around," Buddy Guy. Wow, I haven't heard this in ages. Why didn't Buddy Guy ever get the same attention as, say, Chuck Berry? If you ever get a chance to see him live, don't miss it.
"Like a Wave," Rosanne Cash. A love song in 3/4 time, as all great love affairs are waltzes.
"The Fat Girl," Lyle Lovett. A deep streak of misanthropy and rage -- thinly disguised as humor -- runs through Lyle Lovett's music. It's why I love him so.
"I'm Coming to the Best Part of My Life (Live)," Cass Elliot. Aggh, the irony of this song just kills me. (Not in a choking-on-a-sandwich kind of way. Which, by the way, is a myth; Cass Elliot died of a heart attack. Stop that.)