Originally Published: April 3, 2014
Jane McManus | ESPNNewYork.com
In 2011, Michael Vick was chosen to be the commencement speaker at the Camelot Excel Academies in Philadelphia. Don’t let the name throw you — the students are at the school because of disciplinary or other problems at another institution, and Camelot is a second, or in some cases last, chance at a high school diploma for the predominantly minority student body.
Vick, convicted of charges related to dogfighting in 2007, is the embodiment of second chances. After serving 21 months in federal lockup, he returned to the NFL and gained a starting role for the Philadelphia Eagles. Now, as a member of the New York Jets, Vick is set to battle Geno Smith for one of the highest-profile quarterback jobs in the NFL.
With fresh protests likely to crop up in America’s largest media market, Vick would be well-served to keep in mind the message he delivered to the students at Camelot. “Not everyone is going to cheer you on,” he said. “Don’t listen to the people who want you to fail. I want you to succeed. Your family and teachers here today want you to succeed. I also want you to help others succeed. Lift them up and live in a place of positivity.
“Graduates, stand up and be an instrument of change.”
The Eagles and their fans had five seasons to square Vick’s unsavory past with a man who is trying to move beyond it. Now Jets fans have to look at Vick and decide whether they can cheer for him in their shade of green.
“I really don’t want him playing,” said longtime Jets season-ticket holder Naomi Friedman Lindower, who is a cat owner. “It’s going to be hard to root for him, and I want to be able to root for my team.”
Vick’s spokesperson, Chris Shigas, says the quarterback will be looking to do anti-dogfighting outreach in New York and New Jersey, as he did during his time in Philly, but it won’t be easy to find the right fit. Shigas has scheduled a call with the Jets to determine if there are some charitable opportunities for Vick within the club’s current framework. If that includes more animal rights work, Shigas says Vick would be interested.
“He would definitely be open to it,” Shigas said, “but the issue is so sensitive.”
Vick worked with the Humane Society while with the Eagles and was instrumental in getting a federal bill passed that makes it a felony to bring a child to an animal fight. It’s just a small part of what he’s done to bring his message of second chances to communities like Camelot.
“His story is something that affects such a huge percentage of the community,” Shigas said. “They are often counted out, not given second chances, punished differently.”
It also begs the question: When has someone changed? When can a person who is convicted of a terrible crime be considered rehabilitated? The criminal justice system is very good at meting out punishments, but there isn’t a playbook for what happens afterward.
“I believe people can do bad things and there is life after that,” said Ann. L. Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “And our society is kind of weak on that. There is this impetus to punish people for life.”
This is an issue that former NFL player Donte Stallworth, who pled guilty to DUI manslaughter in 2009, has also wrestled with. He knows there will always be people who bring up Mario Reyes, the man Stallworth struck with his car and killed. But, Stallworth said, nothing people say can make him feel worse about the events of that night than he already does, and he devotes time now to speaking out against drinking and driving.
“People are going to have thoughts about what [Vick] did, but he’s a member of our society,” Stallworth said. “What would you have him do, play football and collect his money? Or be out there advocating and trying to help kids?”
In 2012, Vick donated $200,000 to build a football field in Hunting Park, an impoverished north Philadelphia neighborhood. He visited Atlantic City after Superstorm Sandy and received a key to the city. Each appearance, each accolade brings both praise and harsh criticism.
“If you make a horrible mistake or a horrible decision, there are going to be people who don’t like you or who hate you,” Stallworth said. “For him to have another opportunity to play is good for him. And there’s a huge market in New York for him to do more outreach. He’s got a few more years left to play, but he’s got a lifetime to raise awareness.”
Not everyone can forget. The ASPCA, which was part of the rescue effort at Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels, saw the cruelty firsthand. They declined to work with Vick after his release. Last week the group released a statement to ESPN New York.
It reads, in part: “While Michael Vick has ‘served his time’ and even participated in an anti-dog fighting campaign, the history of his cruel behavior should not be forgotten nor dismissed.”
Vick declined to respond, preferring to keep his distance from the issue.
“I’m a Jet, and I appreciate all the Jets fans who appreciate me and accept me for who I am and what I’ve become, not for what I’ve done,” Vick said the day he was signed. “I think right now my past is irrelevant. We’re talking about football, not the things that transpired off the field.”
Jets owner Woody Johnson noted Vick’s efforts, and said the team consulted with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell before making the decision to go after Vick.
“We know his past,” Johnson said at the recent NFL owners meetings, according to Newsday. “He didn’t make great choices back then, but he, like a lot of people, deserves a second chance. He’s done his time in jail, and he’s come out as an advocate against this kind of violence against animals, particularly dogs.”
After his release from prison, Vick teamed with the Humane Society and did public service announcements and tandem appearances. Vick was part of a $50,000 donation the Eagles made to the organization for anti-dogfighting work. That morphed into another program called Pets For Life that tries to provide pet-care resources for underserved areas.
Who better than Vick to reach out? Here was a football star who had served his time and spoke to neighborhoods where pit bulls were the dog of choice, where having an aggressive dog was viewed as a positive.
“If you see animal cruelty in your neighborhood, speak up,” Vick tells his audiences. “Make the call.”
Vick hasn’t done any public appearances in conjunction with the Humane Society since April 2012, and the Society declined to comment on Vick for this article. There has been no formal end to the relationship, but it is a complicated union. A significant portion of the Humane Society’s core supporters will never accept Vick. The organization even has an FAQ page online addressing criticism of its engagement with the quarterback.
Here is one question posted online: “Do you think Michael Vick got a slap on the wrist for his crimes?” The Humane Society page answers, in part: “His work in reaching out to important audiences now buttresses that of the leading anti-dogfighting group in the nation in its broad efforts to attack the problem.”
In late 2012, Vick adopted a dog, sparking another round of outrage from the animal welfare community.
But, for the most part, Vick was known to be an exemplary teammate with the Eagles, and while he’s had some financial problems, he has stayed out of legal trouble.
“We don’t know his heart, we can’t know him,” Jacobs said. “I would say when somebody can stay out of trouble for seven years, when they can go back to their job and be good at it, when they have a sense of responsibility in that role model way, that all counts for something.”
Jane McManus has covered New York sports since 1998 and began covering football just before Brett Favre’s stint with the Jets. Her work has appeared in Newsday, USA Today, The Journal News and The New York Times. Follow Jane on Twitter.