Michael Vick wants a puppy for Christmas.
Sunday, the noted canine enthusiast and Eagles quarterback made headlines on the field. With his team trailing 24-3 at halftime, Vick threw three touchdowns and ran for a fourth in the second half, leading Philly to a dramatic win and displaying the dazzling talent that once made him the NFL's highest-paid player.
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Vick made bigger news off the field. Always a touchstone for controversy, the Quarterback Formerly Known as Ron Mexico recently reignited a national debate by mentioning that he would like to own a dog again someday. Banned from dog ownership as a condition of his probation, which ends in May 2012, Vick said last week that having a dog would be a big step in his rehabilitation. Besides, he told a reporter, his kids want a puppy, and it hurts him to explain why the family can't have one—which sounds a lot like cosmic justice.
The debate, as it always does when Vick is involved, degenerated quickly from discussions of a personal redemption—or a lack thereof—into fights about racism, and reductio ad absurdum arguments that morally equate eating a cheeseburger with serial dog abuse. In a true triumph of the entrepreneurial spirit over good taste, a gambling website posted odds on what breed of dog Vick will own first.
What's Vick's real motivation for publicly requesting a dog? There's no doubt that his kids really do want a pet. What kids don't, after all? There's no doubt that Vick is at least partially motivated by a genuine human need for forgiveness. But any cynic worth his bile would be remiss not to note that there may be other motives at work.
Like, say, money.
Wanting a dog when his probation expires is one thing. But talking about that desire now—and doing so for publication—isn't going to help him get one any sooner. The conditions of Mike Vick's probation are not going to change—not unless there's a judge out there who really loves hate mail. After his probation expires, though, Vick can own all the dogs he wants. He won't need the public's permission. Which makes you wonder: Why did he ask for it? And why bring it up now?
It's impossible not to notice that Vick's recent work with the Humane Society neatly coincided with his first, ginger foray back into the world of endorsements: a "This is SportsCenter"-style TV ad for a car dealership in—where else?—New Jersey. It's therefore also impossible not to suspect that his choice to publicly talk about dog ownership now is part of a calculated public relations strategy—an effort to stir debate, get Vick's name in the news, help repair his shattered brand, and so get the former Nike pitchman back on the endorsement deal gravy train.
Mike Vick paid his debt according to the law. But the law doesn't matter in the court of public opinion.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had to be rational. Ignoring the obvious lie in Vick's plea bargain that he never gambled on dogfights, and for reasons of both law and public relations, Goodell made the rational choice by letting Vick back in the league almost immediately. The Eagles made a rational choice when they signed him for a relative pittance and got themselves an MVP candidate.
Fans, though, don't have to be rational. You can love a guy for his haircut or hate him for his end-zone dance. Logically, Royals fans know that Zack Greinke was right to take his Cy Young-winning talents to Milwaukee, but they are still mad that he left the team. Logically, Cleveland fans shouldn't be bitter about LeBron James. Most angry Cavs fan wouldn't hesitate to leave town if they were offered a better job in Miami. Why would they blame James for doing the same thing?
Because they can. Because sports are about symbolism and wish projection. They are an outlet for emotions—logical or not—which would otherwise go unexpressed. Vick's prison term may have been harsh in terms of sentencing guidelines. For dog-lovers though, especially watching Vick reap glory on the football field this season, it is hard to avoid feeling that he didn't lose nearly enough.
There's nothing to be done about that. But Vick's successes on the field don't necessarily translate into popularity off it. If he wants to own a dog because his kids want one, that's his business. When he starts crowing about dog ownership as a PR ploy to rebuild his image and win celebrity endorsement deals, it becomes our business, too.
In May 2012, assuming he meets the conditions of his probation, Michael Vick will have earned the right to have become a dog owners once more. For a very large segment of the population, though, however illogical and irrational it might be, Vick will never, ever earn back the right to tell us what to buy.