Commentary

Vick's reality: Life as an ex-con

Originally Published: May 19, 2009
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

This week, Michael Vick is expected to take the next step in his "rehabilitation." He will be released from a federal penitentiary and will serve the remaining 60 days of his 23-month prison sentence in home confinement. After that, he will be placed on probation for the next three years.

The incarceration portion of his debt will be paid. He will be a free man.

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick
Steve Helber-Pool/Getty ImagesMichael Vick is about to finish paying his so-called debt to society, but society might not see it that way.

In the context of prison and its aftermath, the word "rehabilitation" is a fluid concept at best, closer to hypocritical. Over the coming months, Vick will provide a living illustration of life after Leavenworth, of just how severe the gap really might be between the ideal of having paid one's debt to society and the reality of life on the outside as an ex-convict -- even as an ex-con who once ran the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, who once signed an NFL contract worth $130 million.

Already, the prospect of Vick's return has prompted response. Tony Dungy, he of the impeccable moral credentials -- compassionate in his religion, committed to character as much as to championships -- traveled to Kansas recently and met with the imprisoned Vick. Dungy said he made the trip to gauge the former quarterback's mindset. In today's sporting landscape, few own a more respectable Good Housekeeping seal than Dungy.

"I am going out there to really talk about life, to talk about the Lord," Dungy said as a guest on Dan Patrick's radio show last week. "I know he has made a profession that he has accepted the Lord into his life. Talk to him about what he's going to face. Most people are going to be against him. He's got to understand that."

Dungy's visit might also serve other purposes in addition to helping Vick turn a corner personally. Dungy could lend his considerable influence to aid in Vick's inevitable petition to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to get his old life back. But Dungy may also be sending a message to us, the public. America has always loved a comeback, and perhaps Dungy is reminding us that Vick falls into the category of deserving the opportunity to engineer one.

Vick's "rehabilitation" will test America's appetite for second chances, as well as address the question -- as yet unanswered in this country -- of whether a debt to society can ever be fully repaid. Two years after being sent to prison for running an illegal dogfighting operation, the scar of the public division over his conviction and prison time might have faded, replaced by the sports world's latest transgressions. But it has not completely healed, has not lost its significance. No professional athlete this side of O.J. Simpson polarized the public discussion, about how we all feel about this country, as much as Vick.

He reminded the public of its deep divisions regarding judicial fairness, race, geography, class and -- perhaps more important than those first four -- personal morality. The emotions stirred by the conversation about dogfighting, on both sides -- the side that was utterly horrified by the details of his cruelty to animals and the side that believed Vick was a high-profile fall guy, for whom the punishment far exceeded the crime -- were remarkably strong.

[+] EnlargeTony Dungy
AP Photo/Michael ConroyIf Vick is looking for help, Tony Dungy is a very good place to start the search.

Inside the corporate world of the NFL, Vick is a seminal figure, for he provided the cudgel for a new commissioner, Goodell, to place additional emphasis and judgment on personal conduct, above and beyond whatever may transpire in a court of law. The Vick case gave Goodell power, and tilted the balance of power with the players. The commissioner now is a feared presence.

The question of Vick's rehabilitation itself is deeply layered. He must play professional football to satisfy the long list of people to whom he owes money. He is financially insolvent, currently in bankruptcy court. After his release, he will live in Virginia and work at a construction company for $10 per hour, but his responsibility to his creditors can only be addressed by playing for an NFL team.

And yet it is unclear whether, physically, Vick is NFL material anymore. He has not appeared in a regular-season game since Dec. 31, 2006, and Goodell has the authority to keep him out of the NFL for part or all of the 2009 season, even after his time has been served. Goodell has not likely forgotten that during the early stages of the government's case against him, Vick visited the commissioner's office and told him -- to his face -- that the allegations against him were false.

In some ways, Goodell is following the Kenesaw Mountain Landis model in his commissionership. He has the public -- weary of watching high-priced athletes walk away from trouble without accountability -- on his side. In that sense, Goodell is the anti-Bud Selig. Where Selig has been reluctant to punish players for their transgressions off the field -- Miguel Tejada, for example, pleaded guilty to lying to federal officers and received no sanction from his day job -- Goodell has shown no such hesitation, even though by adding a suspension on top of a prison sentence, Goodell would be punishing Vick twice.

A suspension during some or all of the 2009 season would make it virtually impossible for an NFL team to be enthused about signing him, especially as a quarterback. Even when he was at his best, Vick was an acquired taste at that position. He was never a prototypical quarterback who could transition easily into a prototypical system. His skills were unique, and required a nontraditional offensive approach to maximize his abilities. A continued suspension would say, in effect, that the debt has not yet been paid.

[+] EnlargeRoger Goodell
AP Photo/Bill KostrounNFL commissioner Roger Goodell holds all the cards now. Will he lift Vick's suspension?
Vick might have paid his debt to society through his incarceration, but he will never be whole again. For example, as a convicted felon, according to Virginia state law, he has permanently lost his right to vote; he's one of approximately 5.3 million Americans who have lost that right due to felony conviction, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

In Virginia -- considered along with Kentucky by the ACLU to be the most difficult state for residents convicted of a felony to return to normalcy -- roughly 300,000 residents cannot vote, even though they are no longer in prison. Vick won't be able to vote for President or Congress, or state representative, or whether his town should put up a new stop sign. Only a special appeals process to the governor can restore voting rights for ex-convicts in Virginia.

But keeping Vick, even temporarily, from re-entering his career would only be consistent with life for ex-convicts -- more proof, in fact, that the debt can never be paid. The word rehabilitate, by definition, means (1) to restore to a condition of good health, ability to work, etc., and (2) to restore to former rank, rights or privileges.

The combination of the stigma of being a convicted felon and the permanent loss of a basic right ensures Vick must begin this new chapter of his life by forgetting his old life. He cannot be restored to his former rank. Restoration, rehabilitation -- they are illusory words for people who have done time, especially someone whose downfall came so spectacularly and publicly. Michael Vick must build something completely new, and claim it as his own.

Michael Vick timeline

NFL.com Video

A chronology of events around Vick's troubles, ending with a guilty plea for dogfighting.

Vick's upcoming strategies rely heavily on being able -- at a fairly high level -- to re-enter his life. His serious financial situation essentially forces him to be an NFL-quality football player, but he has no idea whether Goodell will even give him that opportunity this year or whether he will ever find acceptance in the league, personally. If there is one certainty, it is that no one ever leaves prison the same person he was when he entered. Mike Tyson knows this firsthand; in many ways, he has never recovered from his incarceration.

The coming months will not be clean for Vick. They will teach him, and us, as much about the concept of re-entry into one's life -- and about just how real second chances truly are in this country -- as they will about the remaining level of Michael Vick's football skills.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston " and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.