This Sporting Life: Short Essay*
Know up front that this column solves nothing. It proposes no answers, easy or otherwise, and offers no comfort. This column will not save you. It will not save me. It will not save Michael Vick, and it will not save Roger Goodell. This column doesn't throw out its chest and pretend to hold an exclusive on "the Truth." In fact, this column will fail to explain the very thing this column is about, which is failure itself. So this column can only disappoint everyone.
Upon the occasion of his release Monday from home confinement, we're going to see and hear a lot about Michael Vick. About his past and about his future. About what the NFL commissioner's office should or can or must or won't or mustn't or shouldn't do.
And the people who speak and write these words will be counting on us all to respond in familiar ways to familiar cues. Cues like "thug" and "brutal" and "cruelty"; or "debt" and "society" and "paid." Having thus read and heard, we will then be called upon to feel once again our reliably deep and heated feelings. These are to include disgust, anger, indignation, fear, resentment, pity, insult, bigotry, sympathy, contempt and so forth.
Some will say he's too good a player to be kept out of the game. Others will say he's too bad a man to be allowed anywhere near it.
We'll hear about race* and culture and crime and punishment and contrition and redemption. We'll hear about the disproportionate and terrifying number of young African-American men in prison. We'll hear about Tiger and Michael and Pacman. We'll hear about murder and hypocrisy and factory farming. Someone somewhere will note the similarity between dogfighting and professional football.
A few conservatives will mistake toughness for fairness, and a few liberals will mistake weakness for compassion.
And all these words and all these feelings will proceed from the wrongheaded assumption that there is only one "Truth," and that someone (perhaps the commissioner of the NFL) has access to it.
For his part, Roger Goodell will now be presented with the impossible question that lies at the moral core of all human law: What is unforgivable?
So here I offer the commissioner the following advice from "The Merchant of Venice":
The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth, as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless'd;
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.
As a spiritual matter, I remind the commissioner that, iambs aside, forgiveness is the only possibility here, because it is the one act that makes us truly holy.
As a practical matter, I would remind him also that while the wise man forgives, he never forgets.
Because Michael Vick is not entitled to another chance in the NFL.
Michael Vick is entitled only to the opportunity to make his argument for another chance in the NFL.
So he will rise in a paneled room somewhere to state his case. He will speak quietly on his own behalf as Goodell listens. And as Michael Vick finishes, as he sits, no one, least of all Michael Vick, will know for sure whether he means a word of what he said.
All of which makes clear, especially today, that it remains easier to land a man on the moon than it is to divine the workings of that man's heart.
*(It is impossible to talk about Michael Vick without addressing issues of race. I do so here, if only sideways. There is a smart, heartbreaking essay by John Edgar Wideman in the August issue of Harper's magazine about this very thing, about race and you and me and love and hate. About legacy and moral corrosion, about the lie of "willed innocence." Because it's a subscription site, I can't quote it, but please seek it out online or in print. Find it here.
I direct you to it because questions of race so often arise in, and subsequently drive, our national discussions about sports.
Even now -- or perhaps especially now -- with Barack Obama in the White House at the dawning of what may become a post-racial age, race relations remain the central historical failure of the American experiment. Just ask professor Skip Gates. In fact the president addressed this failure in his speech to the NAACP last week.
"I understand there may be a temptation among some to think that discrimination is no longer a problem in 2009. And I believe that overall, there probably has never been less discrimination in America than there is today. I think we can say that.
"But make no mistake: The pain of discrimination is still felt in America. By African-American women paid less for doing the same work as colleagues of a different color and a different gender. By Latinos made to feel unwelcome in their own country. By Muslim Americans viewed with suspicion simply because they kneel down to pray to their God. By our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights.
"On the 45th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, discrimination cannot stand -- not on account of color or gender; how you worship or who you love. Prejudice has no place in the United States of America."
But the truth is that prejudice still finds a home wherever it can, and that bigotry thrives on ignorance.
In which case our weakness becomes a weapon.
And from the moment this story broke, Michael Vick has been the blunt instrument in lots of impoverished, hypocritical arguments about the nature of race and fame and money.
The capital "T" Truth is often fantastically complex. The truth of race in America certainly is. But that complexity cannot be an excuse for moral paralysis or intellectual inaction, especially as we move into our next new future. Rather, the very difficulty of living up to that truth calls for hard, determined work from everyone. The truth demands our best. It demands more than bigotry and hype, more than cliché or stereotype or bootstrap platitudes. It demands original thinking and empathy and genuine conviction, even from those of us who only write about sports.)
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 email@example.com.