Michael Vick’s Redemption Playbook

The second part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary on the football star delves into a second act that was as carefully stage-managed as it seemed sincere.

Jemal Countess / Getty for Saks Fifth Avenue

The thing about digging yourself out of disgrace as a public figure is that, in most cases, it’s not as hard as it might seem. There’s even a set plan, or, in Michael Vick’s case, a playbook. As Stanley Nelson details in the second part of his riveting 30 for 30 documentary on the football star, when Vick was released from prison in 2009 after serving almost two years on charges related to his role in a dog-fighting ring, his route to public rehabilitation was already set. He took full responsibility for what he’d done. He apologized, and expressed sincere contrition. He declared his intention to make amends for funding and participating in dog fighting, which he described as a “terrible thing.” With cases like Vick’s, the crisis-management expert Judy Smith tells Nelson in the film, “it is not just an apology and then everything is okay. There’s a path forward; there’s a journey that Mike had to make. There was a road he had to walk down.”

Smith would know; she, along with six other PR professionals reportedly hired by Vick after his release from prison, charted the way. If Part 1 of 30 for 30: Michael Vick gave deep context into how and why a superstar ended up a pariah, Part 2, which aired on ESPN Thursday night, is an irresistible redemption story. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously decreed that there are no second acts in American lives. Michael Vick, with his diligent work for the Humane Society after prison, his advocacy for stronger laws against dog fighting on Capitol Hill, and his donations to groups for at-risk youth, would seem to disagree. This isn’t even to mention Vick’s brief return to the dazzling talent he’d displayed in 2001, when he was the first black quarterback to be the No. 1 draft pick in the NFL.

Watching Vick, I found it exceedingly difficult to quibble with the idea that its subject deserved a second chance to prove himself. There’s no doubt that the NFL’s failure to provide its biggest stars with sufficient support—such as preparing them for preposterous wealth and fame—is an ongoing dereliction. Nelson is an insightful, empathetic storyteller, and his analysis of Vick’s childhood in Newport News, Virginia (known colloquially as “Newport Nam” for its violence and its perilousness for young men), is full of context to explain how Vick got into trouble. “I can’t say it’s the safest place in the world,” Vick tells Nelson in one of several forthright interviews he sat down for. “But it’s home to me.” Vick’s mother was 17 when she gave birth to him, and his father was often absent because of drugs (in 2018, Michael Boddie was sentenced to five years in prison for his role in a heroin-trafficking operation). Vick recalls, as a kid, watching dog fights while perched on the mailbox outside his house. The police would occasionally stop and “break it up a little bit,” he says, but for the most part they didn’t seem to care.

Vick’s uncommon talent, his effortless throwing ability combined with his dizzying speed, was obvious even in high school, where as many as 10 college football coaches came to watch him play each game. His high-school coach, Vick notes, insisted that he be recruited as a quarterback, in a system much more inclined to steer black players into different positions. (Nelson briefly explores the pernicious racism of a sport disinclined to put black players in leadership roles.) All the while, Nelson shows how the opportunities in front of Vick were countered by his intense attachment to the place where he grew up and the people he was closest to. When Vick finally chose to attend Virginia Tech, it was because of the school’s proximity to his home. One of his friends from Newport News, Quanis Phillips (the closest thing the documentary gets to an outright villain for the ways in which he seemed to assume Vick’s money and success for himself), even came with him, although he wasn’t enrolled as a student. “You don’t get to that point and then cut people off,” Vick explains. “I didn’t believe in it.”

By the time Vick was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in 2001, he and Phillips had already decided to start breeding dogs, on a property he’d bought in Virginia explicitly for that purpose. “I grew up with a passion for dogs,” he says, a statement that Nelson fails to interrogate, given the facts that emerged later about what Vick had done to animals. And this is the biggest problem with Vick as a piece of cultural analysis: It never really tries to reconcile the brilliant, hubristic, untouchable Vick of Part 1 with the humbled, earnest, deeply sincere Vick of Part 2. One loves dogs; the other participated in their torture and execution. The striking evolution Vick seems to have undergone would have been well worth parsing, particularly given how thoughtfully the documentary illuminates the external factors surrounding the scandal: the racism of some commentators and protesters after he was arrested, and the cultural chasm between white people who were outraged at Vick’s abuse of dogs and black people who saw the latent hypocrisy of the things white people get outraged about. (“Kill a black man, everybody go home,” Steve Harvey said at the time. “You kill a dog, your ass got to go to jail.”)

Vick has a powerful narrative at its core. It is possible, the movie suggests, to be truly sorry for something, to try to rectify past wrongs, even if you know your legacy will always be a checkered one. When I watched Part 2, I felt truly moved by the arc of Vick’s life, by the people who were determined to help him prove himself again, by the sheer power and beauty of his game. And yet, thinking about it later outside of the emotive frame of the documentary, I nonetheless felt frustrated by Vick’s unwillingness to really hold its subject to account, instead letting his apologies remain vague and by the book. Nelson documents how the authorities found eight dead dogs at Vick’s Virginia property, some of which had been drowned and hung. But Vick avoids some of the darker specifics: That the player confessed, after a failed polygraph test, that he himself had helped kill some of those dogs. Or that one dog had reportedly been killed by being slammed back and forth on the ground until its neck shattered. Or that one of the surviving dogs the police found had had all 42 of her teeth pulled out, so she wouldn’t attack the male dogs used to breed with her.

Any full portrait of Michael Vick has to account for his culpability in these acts of profound cruelty. Nelson asks Vick’s co-conspirators, Phillips and Purnell Peace, what they enjoyed about dog fighting, and both express a lack of regret. “I just loved seeing it, man,” Phillips tells Nelson. “If you asked me to this day would I do it again, yeah I would.” But Vick’s own statements about what he did still rigidly avoid specifics, and Nelson never presses him. (“I spent enough time out there to know what was going on,” Vick says, with characteristic evasion.) What’s left is a documentary about two seemingly irreconcilable sides of the same man, and a missed opportunity to see someone grapple with past behavior—without the help of a prewritten script.