Should Michael Vick be allowed to return to the NFL?
Posted by sanityinjection on February 19, 2009
Now that the NFL offseason has begun, speculation has commenced regarding the future of former NFL quarterback Michael Vick. Even those who are not avid football fans may recall Vick’s staggering fall from star quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons to incarceration at Leavenworth federal prison after conviction on felony dogfighting charges. Vick’s prison sentence will be ending this summer, raising the question of whether he could be reinstated after his release to play football in the 2009 season. Vick was suspended indefinitely without pay after pleading guilty to the charges. In order for him to return, the NFL’s commissioner, Roger Goodell would have to lift that suspension, and then a team would have to acquire the rights to Vick through a trade with the Falcons, with whom he remains under contract, but who have clearly stated will not play him again.
I’ve seen a few columns on this question, of which this one is probably the most thorough. Essentially, there are three different factors to consider, which I would label as the football factor, the public relations/marketing factor, and the moral/ethical factor.
First, the football factor. Can Vick play well enough to be an asset to an NFL team? I think there is broad agreement that the answer to this question is yes. Before his abrupt departure from the sport, Vick was known as one of the finer pure athletes in the NFL. That athletic ability is unlikely to be too diminished once he is able to resume a proper training regimen. Vick’s quarterback skills have been questioned, but depending on his price Vick could make a scary backup for a number of teams even if no one wanted to give him a starting job. However, there is no lack of other quarterback prospects out there, with promising youths coming out of the college ranks on a regular basis. What is questionable is whether Vick’s football talents exceed the others by enough to outweigh the non-football factors that come with him.
Such as the public relations factor. Vick’s crime was one that is particularly repugnant to many. Animal welfare groups such as the Humane Society and PETA have suggested they might protest any team that signed Vick. And more mainstream folk might feel a reluctance to cheer for Vick or (just as importantly) buy Vick jerseys or shoes. With more NFL players getting arrested for various reasons, the league and its teams have an interest in presenting themselves as organizations which pride themselves on the character of their players, coaches, and staff. Vick would be an obvious embarrassment in that regard. However, there have been several players convicted of misdemeanors who returned to the NFL. Vick’s crime is also more complicated because it involved gambling on the dogfights, and the NFL has in the past taken a hard line against players found to have participated in illegal gambling.
Finally, there is the moral/ethical factor. Does Vick deserve a second chance? Some columnists have pointed out correctly that Vick will have served his sentence and paid for his crime. Why, they ask, should he be punished further by denying him the right to earn his living? After all, Vick left college before earning his degree; football has been his only career.
I would argue that playing football in the NFL is a privilege, and not a right. Even the lowest-paid NFL players make six-figure salaries, while many college players fail to make the cut and never receive the opportunities Vick has had. When a convicted felon is released from prison, he cannot necessarily expect to resume the career he had before his conviction, and may have to learn a new career. Vick should be no exception. If that means peddling cell phones at the mall, as a Denver running back did last year before being re-signed by his team, so be it.
If I were an NFL general manager, I think I would have a hard time justifying the decision to employ Michael Vick over another quarterback with no off-field issues. But the question remains whether commissioner Goodell should reinstate Vick and allow the teams to make that decision for themselves. With other players, Goodell has generally been willing to grant second chances provided the player is sincere about reforming himself, as I have no doubt Vick would be. But as a lawyer and someone deeply aware of the league’s financial and image concerns, Goodell may not be so inclined to be charitable. I think Goodell will probably agree to talk with Vick, but would be completely justified in refusing to reinstate him. Drawing that line could have a positive effect as a sharp warning to other players who have had run-ins with the law that they risk losing the opportunity of a lifetime if they keep it up.