Commentary

Michael Vick, Uninteresting American

His return to Atlanta this week might barely dent the country's Tiger Woods frenzy

Originally Published: December 4, 2009
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Michael Vick FanJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesIt's a tale of two cities: Atlanta and Philadelphia. But does Michael Vick's story still resonate?

Going into Week 13 of this NFL season, Michael Vick has only 6 more passing yards than I do.

And he is lucky to have them.

As one of this year's default narratives in the NFL, he's also lucky to have seen this week's big sporting story ("Chastened Vick Returns to the 404") overwhelmed by wall-to-wall coverage of Tiger Woods and His Fiery Return to Earth ("Escalade Escapade Endangers Tiger," etc., and so forth, world without end, amen).

Only Gloria Allred marks this week farther ahead on the futures market.

So while it turns out that Tiger is much more interesting than he lets on, it turns out that Michael Vick is, at least for this season, capable of being much less so. How long this Vick The Uninteresting lasts is a function of Mr. Vick's next contract I suppose, and his next port of call, as much as it is any genuine rebuilding of character he might have undertaken during his stay in prison, or with Tony Dungy. It takes an improbably long time, after all, to remake a soul.

Disclaiming all the usual disclaimers about race and other incendiaries, I have no wish to see Mr. Vick fail, but I have no vested interest in his success, either. The third act of his NFL story arc will play out as it plays out without any prompting from you or from me. He will make his decisions and live with the consequences, and like any one of us, Michael Vick will drift through the vacuum of a morally neutral universe until the very moment he no longer does so.

Thus it seems likely that Mr. Vick will be greeted in Atlanta this weekend with equal and opposite measures of affection and derision: a polite wash between love, indifference and loathing. And another week's worth of 72-point headlines and feature stories will have come and gone, signifying … just what exactly?

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick protesters
Mike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesHas America moved on from the protests against Vick? His return to Atlanta on Sunday might give us an indication.
Because it seems to me now that the truest weirdness of reality television is in how it managed to become reality itself. How it boomeranged those headlines and puff pieces back at us to infect and overtake the everyday. The arc of celebrity in America, once a thing manufactured only in Hollywood or New York, is now a nationwide cottage industry, with fame available to anyone with a smart phone and a willingness to hoard the text messages or dirty photos of a famous lover.

But take heart, if only a little. Mr. Woods will pay some steep future price for his lunatic indiscretions.

Nor will Mr. Vick get off scot-free, as the comments following this little item in a recent issue of USA Today prove. That page may be pink, sure, but those folks are ALL-CAPS ANGRY! I'M SO MAD I COULD CAPS-LOCK!

And as the public sorts through its conflicting feelings about Mr. Vick's right to run and throw for money, or to walk idly past a pet store, and Mr. Woods' right to shame his wife and children and ruin his marriage, there is of course a certain amount of opportunism at work among my colleagues and me in the vampire press. Because here among the deep thinkers and the sycophants, the Twitterati and the snipers and the choir boys, among the scolds and the moral relativists, the jugheads and the skeptics and the naifs, the he-men woman-haters and the sob sisters and the dipsomaniacs, you'll be surprised to learn that some of us are self-promoting cynics, too, whose only interest is in newsstand sales, page views and in becoming recognizable enough for the free upgrade to business class.

This is your American press -- from the White House to the outhouse to the House That Ruth Built -- as fickle and weak and inconstant as any human heart.

Thus passes another morally exhausting week in the tangle of frathouses and cathouses that make up professional sports and its coverage in America.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty ImagesThere might be lessons to be learned from the Tiger Woods story, but how long will we remember them?
(Regarding that: To call whatever Tiger was doing "an affair," or to refer to these women as "mistresses," is to give everyone involved far too much credit and cachet. That kind of adult/adulterous language puts an unearned continental gloss on the whole sordid mess. This wasn't Cary Grant having cocktails at the Savoy. This was just the impulsive tug and grunt of hooking up.)

Anyway. From Beowulf to Broadway, the whole of human history is the story of a species trying to make sense of itself. This inward awareness, more than language or tools or love or science, is what distinguishes us from other animals. Other animals waste no time trying to make sense of what they do or why they do it; they simply proceed with being.

We, on the other hand, now spend what seems to me a very great deal of time trying to judge things -- like the moral fitness of our commercial spokesmen. Would you buy a car from this man? A video game? A golf ball? A shoe?

When did we begin imposing ethical and behavioral standards on our carnival barkers and sideshow performers?

It is a truth of our American experiment that we have no mythology. No pre-history. (The pre-history we found here upon arrival, we exterminated.) From our founding, we've been alternately (and schizophrenically) much too modern, much too scientific or much too Christian to believe in the old fairy tales. So what we have instead of ancient stories of origin or warning are a couple of widely misremembered parables from the Bible, and the shabby, interchangeable trims and bits of our tabloid cautionary tales. These we cast and recast as we go. Thus, we wind up with Grandpa Favre instead of Lazarus or Methuselah; Tiger Woods (and every cocktail waitress west of the Pecos, apparently) instead of Hero and Leander or Leda and the Swan; Michael Vick instead of Narcissus.

Being able to hit a rock with a shepherd's crook, or run and throw, does not inoculate you against the worst of being human. Nor does it absolve, excuse or even explain your miserable "transgressions."

"Forgive me father, for I have undermined the brand."

"Hail Mary Wells Lawrence, full of grace."

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesHis new team, the Eagles, sacked Vick with his old team, the Falcons, in 2006. How conflicted will Atlanta fans be this weekend?
"And I have abused my sky-high Q rating."

"You'll go blind, son. Kneel here and speak the words with me. 'Our Father, who art on Wall Street, hallowed be thy crisis management strategy. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on turf as it is on Madison Avenue' … "

And so on.

Does any of this matter? And to whom? To us? To Vick himself? To Tiger? To his handlers? To those he betrayed?

So much ink and so many pixels spilled in service of so little.

The truth is we expect sports to teach our life lessons -- about teamwork and courage and loyalty; about betrayal and cowardice and disappointment -- right up until the very moment we don't.

This week's lessons have been about devotion and fidelity and honor, unrestraint and appetite and indiscretion, cruelty and sympathy, compassion and anger, trust and forgiveness and love and commitment.

Unless they weren't about any of those things at all.

In fact, I have no idea what we've learned. And after a lifetime among them, I can no longer tell you if Americans forgive anything, or merely forget everything.

Weeks like this, I'm not convinced there's a difference.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question: "What Are Sports For?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.