If you’ve been around this blog for any time at all, you probably know by now how emotional I get about dogs. Loving my dogs, rescuing dogs, studying dog behavior, advocacy issues involving dogs, educating others on how to respect their dogs…you get the idea. What you may not know is that I also can get really emotional about football. For 3 decades I have been raised as a devoted, passionate, optimistic, and for many seasons disappointed New York Jets Fan. My dad’s been taking us to games since I was a kid, and I’ve grown up unconditionally loving my New York football team, despite the fact that New York also happens to have another football team that actually has won (or been to, for that matter) Super Bowls in my lifetime.
A time honored family tradition is believing in and sticking by our team, then being let down at the end of the season. But hey, we had a Playoff streak from 2009/10-2010/11, making it so far as to be crushingly defeated in the AFC Championship by the Pittburgh Steelers before a recent steady decline into sadness and butt fumbles. Then, just when you think you think being a Jets fan can’t get any worse, this happens.
It’s been over 7 years since Michael Vick was sentenced to prison for his crimes. This July will mark 5 years since his release from incarceration, and subsequent reinstatement into the NFL. Yet, it’s only natural that Vick’s name continues to haunt and stir up emotions in people, and that my heart would sink and I would feel personally betrayed by the people who added him to the Jets roster. For the masses of dog lovers who also pay any scrap of attention to football, there has been a lot of outcry. Take a look at the Jets Facebook Page and you’ll see that fans are mad. The recurring theme in much of what I read is full of disappointment, anger, and a lot of animal loving Jets fans deciding to boycott the team (and with NY Giants Offensive Tackle Justin Pugh now representing the Show Your Soft Side Campaign, jumping ship for New York’s rival team seems apt right about now). Even dogs are shaming the Jets.
The wagging tongues should come as no surprise to Woody Johnson, John Idzik, Rex Ryan, and the rest of the NY Jets Leadership. Nor should it be a surprise to the NFL, who still seems to be taking heat for reinstating Vick as a player in 2009, after his release from federal prison. As recently as January of this year, as the Philadelphia Eagles ended their football season, Juliet Macur of The New York Times reported on a sidelined Michael Vick, who had effectively lost his job to young starting quarterback Nick Foles in 2013. Macur provides an editorial caution to any prospective teams who may be looking to Vick as a possible fit. But the Times article mostly ignores his injuries, his age, or his prospects for contributing to a team’s performance. Michael Vick the athlete might as well not exist. Instead, the focus is on Michael Vick the dog fighter, and the advice is that teams “considering giving him a third chance in the N.F.L. should be required to look past his strong left arm, his nimble feet and his potentially cost-effective upside.”
The article goes on to recount the lives lost, the lives impacted, the lives of the dogs who were innocent victims to the atrocities committed by Michael Vick. I’ll spare you the horrific details, which you can get from the article and abundant other sources. Many people in animal welfare are already well aware of those details, and they continue to hurt hearts everywhere, mine included. Beyond the physical abuse, there is the road to rebuild. Peace, Love, & Fostering recently provided some heartbreaking perspective about what victims of dog fighting, as well as their rescuers, fosters, and adopters, are faced with when they pick up the pieces and try to achieve a normal life after a life of trauma. Physical injuries often take less time to go away than emotional ones, and the scars on a dog’s heart may leave deep and lasting impressions. Speaking as someone who has adopted a dog with physical and emotional scars, I can tell you those emotional scars are so much more visible every day than what his fur has concealed over time.
My mind cannot and will not ever be able to wrap around what causes a person to operate or support the use and abuse of animals for “sport.” It hurts my head, it hurts my heart. It hurts that the dirty and illegal sport of dog fighting continues to take place in pockets of the United States, and that all its rippling ramifications affect poor victimized dogs and their brethren well beyond the terrible abuse. It has yielded misguided Breed Specific Legislation and a public perception that Pit Bull type dogs are inherently vicious or dangerous. Look to the amazing examples set by Elle the Pit Bull, Xena the Warrior Puppy, Frankie, I’m a Lover Not a Fighter (just a small sampling of amazing bullies doing amazing things), and you’ll see how ridiculous that notion is.
Still, through all this, I look to where we are today, in 2014, over half a decade from where Michael Vick was rightfully sent to jail. I keep being reminded of Michael Vick’s terrible sins. I read and re-read what the reporter writes, that “teams evaluating Vick should think about those horrors before offering him a chance to wear their jersey.”
I can’t help but think of so many of us in the rescue community – so hard on one another, so hard on ourselves, and yet, so endlessly compassionate to the animals who need our human help. We’ve seen the worst, and we sometimes fall into a pattern of therefore seeing the worst in people, whether they deserve to be seen that way or not. And I think of our dogs – I think of of the ways we may have wronged them in their lives. I think, if dogs held grudges the way humans do, the world would be a far less forgiving place. And I think, if we live in a world where we are irredeemable from the sins we commit, what’s the point of living in it?
I always find myself thinking of the Vicktory Dogs, each offering a beacon of light from this whole ugly thing. The wonderful hearts of the humans who have allowed them to share that light with the world. Halle, Handsome Dan, Hector, Squeaky Jean, Layla, Ray. The memories and legacies left by Georgia and Lucas. I think of how easy it would be for them to hold grudges against humanity given what has been done to them, but how human kindness, even if not necessarily at the hand of Vick and those who had done unkindness to them, has allowed them to move on and live well.
Michael Vick has done some horrible things. He will forever hold a legacy as being one bad dude, and that’s an unfortunate consequence to pay for what he’s done. He maybe could have had a legacy of being a QB who ran the ball as effectively as he threw it, and maybe had his NFL career go a different way. His trades to teams would be analyzed by what he did on the field, instead of the crimes and atrocities he committed at the Bad Newz Kennels.
They say that grace is a bestowal of blessings unto those who have committed sins and don’t really deserve those blessings. I can’t speculate if Michael Vick will ever be able to pay penance for his sins or be forgiven by those people who will feel like the prison time he’s served, or the stuff he’s done to try and pay his debt to society after getting out of prison will ever be enough to make things right. But in our life, we all will likely find ourselves needing some grace at some point, if we haven’t already. Michael Vick seems to have been offered that in being able to resume his career after all the intolerable, cruel, and downright wrong things he’s done. What he does with that grace is ultimately up to him. I’m not about to get all preachy, but I am a person of faith. I’m not in the position to pass judgement on the grace that has been shown by powers higher than me.
What I am in the position to do is to live like my dogs, and so many of the dogs I have come to know, and try to open my heart to some forgiveness.
Dr. Angela Londoño-McConnell said it well when she wrote on what forgiveness is, stating, “I think that we often confuse forgiveness with not holding people accountable for their actions. When we engage in the process of forgiveness (and it is a process), in no way does it imply that we condone the behavior of the person…Forgiveness does not suggest that their behavior was in any way acceptable. However, forgiveness does mean that we are not allowing their behavior to define our emotions.”
Here’s the thing. Boycotting the Jets, being angry at the NFL for letting him keep doing the job he was hired to do before he got arrested, harboring resentment – they’re all natural responses. But how is being angry, harboring resentment, or refusing to cheer for a sports team going to really undo the bad things that Vick did more than half a decade ago? How does turning my back on the team I’ve supported for three decades do anything productive? And regardless of whether or not he takes a snap all season, how is wishing my team not to do well, because of who they hired, saving any dogs or preventing any future abuse?
The truth is, none of these actions do anything to undo past abuses, nor do they do anything to help the millions of companion animals who need help today. All they do is ruin my football season before it even starts.
I also have had some conversations with one of my fellow football enthusiasts, rescue heroes, and dog mom of the adorable Skylar and Maybel, Angel B., about this matter. She believes that “instead of being angry about Vick’s success, we should put the energy into positive endeavors — working to end dog fighting, advocating for tougher laws, being better voices for animals.”
Michael Vick’s case has muddied his name, but shone a hot light on a terrible practice that wasn’t getting too much attention before 2007. A public dialogue has been created about a very serious abuse, but it’s not enough to just keep talking about it. I ask of my fellow dog-loving Jets fans who feel like we drew the shortest straw, of all the people who resent the NFL’s decision to allow Michael Vick to play football, to think about where you want to channel your energy. I ask that instead of getting mad, you take action.
Consider what you can do in order to better the lives of animals who need you, and do it. Volunteer your time at a local shelter. Foster a dog through a local animal rescue, or if you want to go a few steps further, foster a victim of dog fighting through a special program (or donate to support the special needs of dog fighting victims). Join an action network to make your voice heard on issues like animal cruelty and breed-specific legislation. Align yourself with an organization that seeks out fair and equal treatment of Pit Bull type dogs, and educate yourself about responsible dog parenting and implementing community advocacy initiatives while you’re there.
While I would be hard pressed to say that Michael Vick has adequately “served his time” as I’ve heard so many times, and I will never find it in me to buy his jersey, I do want to believe in a road to redemption. I want to believe in grace bestowed leading to better lives lived. I want to believe in the New York Jets, and if people want to believe in something different, that’s okay. I just hope that whatever you believe will drive you towards making a difference instead of just making a lot of noise.
A final note: I know and respect that this is a really sensitive issue for many of us who care about animals. It has taken a lot for me to process my own emotional response and to find a way to share my thoughts in a way I intend to be meaningful and constructive. I encourage comments to add to this conversation, but hope that anyone wishing to share their insights will keep it civil.