Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Second Chance


As dawn broke on that summer morning in Joliet, IL, large doors ground open, and a solitary figure stood, waiting to greet the outside world for the first time in three years. He wore a black suit, black hat, dark glasses and a broken Timex watch. In his pocket were $23.07 and a pair of prophylactics, one unused and one, ahem, “soiled.”

It was Independence Day for “Joliet Jake” Blues, and he was concluding his service of the state, having served 60 percent of his five-year sentence for knocking off a liquor store to pay his band’s sizeable room service tab at a previous Kiwanis Club gig. He was a free man, having survived Wednesday night’s “wicked pepper steak” and other assorted indignities. It was a new beginning.

Early Wednesday morning, another solitary figure emerged from incarceration looking for a fresh start. Unlike Jake, he wasn’t going to be picked up by his brother in an old Mount Prospect City police car and ferried to the St. Helen of the Blessed Shroud Orphanage to see the Penguin. He was headed home, for two more months of confinement and a $10/hour job working construction. Then the real work would begin. For Michael Vick, re-entering society was going to be a little tougher than it was for Joliet Jake. A lot tougher. No matter how much he lost and how much he paid for his dog-fighting crimes, Vick was still on the wrong side of the ledger sheet for many people, some of whom offered him no hope of ever climbing back to even, much less moving into the black again.

When Vick left Leavenworth Federal Prison, he did so a broken man. He had lost his job, his money, his reputation, his celebrity and most of the people who had surrounded him when he was flying high. His crimes were heinous, to be sure. His betrayals were many. And his fall was a high-speed plummet the likes of which few professional athletes have experienced. Vick had gone from the face of the world’s most popular sports league to a pariah. He deserved to be cut down in a very public manner. He deserved jail time and the shame that comes with it. He deserved the substantial financial hit he took.

And now he deserves a second chance.

Throughout the entire dog-fighting mess, El Hombre was squarely on the other side of the Vick camp. He believed none of the lies, tolerated none of the arguments made about the “cultural” nature of the crime and refused to consider the apologists who tried to make a man with a nine-figure football contract out to be a tragic figure. Vick got what he deserved, no question about it.

Now, he should get what every American is promised – the opportunity to rebuild his life after paying his penalty. When Vick emerges from home confinement in mid-July, he will do so as a relatively free man. He’ll still have some probationary requirements, and he won’t ever be allowed to own a dog again, but Vick will be able to seek employment, spend time with friends and family, travel (with limits, at first) and try to fashion a new world.

If an NFL team will have him, he should be allowed to play. He should serve a suspension this season, as final penance for his sins against the league, and he must show legitimate (and El Hombre means legitimate) remorse for what he did. But if all of that is satisfied, Vick should be fair game for whoever wants to sign him. That’s his right.

A lot of people disagree. They believe his punishment should have no end, that Vick ought to serve out an indefinite sentence, complete with periodic parades through jeering mobs, the better to humiliate him and prevent him from regaining any dignity. Again, what he did was awful. It was cruel and ghastly. But he has served his sentence, and it’s time to forgive.

You remember forgiveness, don’t you? It’s the bedrock of many religious faiths and a prime characteristic of American society. You can’t scream for infinite punishment and then hide behind a set of beliefs that preaches turning the other cheek. If Vick is indeed remorseful – and he’s going to need a little more than a cursory “I’m sorry” to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell – he deserves some absolution. We won’t forget his prior transgressions, but we need to give him a chance at re-entry to society. For all of those people out there who feel the NFL would be sending a poor message to children if Vick were allowed to play football, consider what a great example we would be setting by giving him another shot at getting it right.

The good news is that this is almost a win-win situation. If Vick does return to the NFL, he will likely do it at an entry-level spot, because what team would risk investing their future on someone with as much baggage as Vick? He is one dumb interview response away from a public relations nightmare. After two years out from the NFL, there’s a big question about whether he can even play the game at a high level anymore. So, should Seattle or St. Louis or Team X decide to sign Vick, it’s unlikely he’ll be brought in as a starter. He’ll have to work his way back to a regular position, as it should be. It’s not like someone is going to bestow another nine-figure contract on him. And if he messes up, he’ll be gone in 60 seconds.

Now, this welcome back to the high-profile, big-money life of professional football comes with a caveat: Vick has to prove he’s sorry, and that won’t come from just one face-to-face meeting with Goodell or the intercessions of Tony Dungy, Jesse Jackson or Dr. Phil. Vick needs to live right and to prove he understands the severity of his betrayal of the league, Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank and the millions of fans who helped get rich and famous. That may require half the ’09 season. It could take the whole year. That’s up to Goodell and the people who will investigate Vick in the coming weeks and months. But it has to happen.

And after that appropriate period, Vick should have another chance at football. He’ll have to prove himself on the field all over again, and he’ll have to live with his transgressions and the impact they had not only on his victims but also on those who adored him. He’ll never be the same person. He probably won’t be the same player. But if he has true remorse for his crimes, he should get the same forgiveness and second chance accorded so many others. If he blows that opportunity, then at least we as a society will know we did what was right.

Think about it; Vick did the wrong thing. Should we do the same?

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: After 149 at-bats, Big Papi finally hit a home run, proving that long droughts truly come to an end. Next up: A-Rod tells the truth…The prevailing wisdom is now that the Clippers have won the Draft Lottery, Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin’s basketball career is headed for trouble. That’s not fair to the Clips. After all, it’s not like they blew their last top pick on Michael Olowokandi or anything. What’s that? Oh, never mind…It’s nice to see that some college conferences are tightening up in these tough economic times, but their members’ budgets remain bloated and embarrassing at a time when institutions are cutting course offerings, laying off faculty and staff and trimming student services. Oh, yeah, they’re also throwing millions at the athletic departments. It’s time for football and men’s basketball to cut the fat for real, the better to reflect the tough times and show they are part of the community, not an outside entity…Less than two months after being hired at Kentucky, Johnny Cal has completed the best recruiting class in the country. If Jodie Meeks returns for his senior season, the Wildcats could have a team capable of taking out the Kings in a best-of-seven. Say what you want about him, but Cal can bring in the talent…R.I.P. Wayman Tisdale. The former Oklahoma star and 13-year NBA vet was a tremendous basketball player, a fine jazz musician and a solid citizen. It was just a few months ago that we heard he was faring well in his fight against cancer, so his death came as a surprise. His is a big loss.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? As the NBA playoffs continue, and Denver makes its bid for the franchise’s first berth in the NBA Finals, it becomes more and more clear that the Nuggets’ swapping of Allen Iverson for Chauncey Billups is one of the most one-sided deals in recent league history. Billups has brought stability, leadership and timely production to Denver, while amplifying what Iverson’s critics (including your humble narrator) have been saying for years. There is no doubting A.I.’s considerable talent, but his has always been a me-first game. And it’s amazing people are just coming to understand this. Is the NBA so adept at creating and promoting its stars that reasonable people look past the glaring inadequacies in their games? It must be, because Iverson was heralded for years as one of the NBA’s best, all the while preventing the Sixers from achieving great things with his selfish play. Yes, 2001 was terrific, but how much of that was Iverson and how much of that was Larry Brown and his ability to build and coach a support system around the guard? You’ll notice that once Brown left, the Sixers floundered. Now, with no contract and a stated unwillingness to sublimate his need to dominate the ball, Iverson faces an uncertain future. No team will throw money at him, because none can afford to have him ruin whatever chemistry it might have. It’s entirely possible that unless Iverson has a remarkable attitude change in the coming months that he will be without an employer come October. That may seem unfathomable to some, but it’s a reflection of an aging scorer’s dwindling physical skills, coupled with an approach to the game that has little to do with team success. It’s sad, but it’s true.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: The Nuggets are a great feel-good story, and Chauncey Billups homecoming is heartwarming, but the team still needs to learn how to win. Tuesday’s loss to the Lakers demonstrated that Denver isn’t quite at a championship level yet. It missed free throws, didn’t work hard enough rebounding the ball and made some dumb mistakes down the stretch. Championship teams take games. They don’t try to play well and wait for a gift. Denver learned that in the first game and had better apply its lessons quickly – like tonight. It’s the same thing that is happening to Chicago in the NHL Western finals series. The young Blackhawks have accomplished a lot, but the Red Wings are stone killers. It’s still possible to shock the world, but for the most part, professional sports rely on veteran leadership and the ability to make big plays late in games. The Nuggets had better remember and apply that.


No comments: