Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Michael Vick, Fighting Dogs & White Outrage

First off, to make it plain, I deplore dog-fighting. I'm too much of an animal lover for that. I've given to wild life protection funds. I spend time searching for hygiene products that say "not tested on animals." No, I'm not with PETA. Neither am I a vegetarian. And I have a serious problem with some of the colonialist practices western wildlife preservation groups use in parts of the "developing world;" hiring mercenaries to shoot/kill poor African farmers seems a cruel injustice given that the profits of poaching tend to enrich foreign paymasters. I just think Homo sapiens sapiens could do a much better job in treating the other denizens of the planet, who happen to outnumber us in both population and time of residency. All of that being said, this latest Michael Vick media spectacle has been disturbing on more than one level.

Partly it's because it seems that the media has determined his guilt before trial, a dangerous precedent I usually leave to rags like Rupert Murdoch's NY Post. Then there's the unspoken of, but right beneath the surface, racial component. A trip to the real window into white America (online message boards) where people say what they *really* feel makes you think you've entered a klan rally. An elderly, trembling and sincerely passionate Congressman Byrd, real life one-time Klan member turned repentant liberal, gets up on the House floor and rails against "barbaric" practices. Already, some media stories are depicting the dog-fighting as something endemic to Hip Hop, painting pictures of violent gang-bangers high on drugs and unleashing their violent dogs in dark underground dwellings. Jason Whitlock, who is making a name for himself in his own unleashed blood-sport of black on black verbal violence, naturally jumped into the foray feet--or perhaps snarling teeth--first.

More problematic than the actual dog-fighting itself is the rush to label it now something particular to a certain group of people--the usual American boogeymen in blackface. In fact however, illegal dog-fighting is flourishing in every state, including places where blacks, Hip Hop and/or gang activity are rare. But, following the normal American theme, if the perpetrator is "black" it must be part of some larger sub cultural pathos festering among degenerate segments of society.

So Vick will now become the "face" of dog-fighting, much the way Michael Jackson became the "face" of child abuse, OJ Simpson the "face" of domestic violence, etc.

It's not that any of these acts in of themselves aren't abhorrent. Rather it's the peculiar trend, in which members of an ethnic group that make up a mere 12% of the overall American population become the poster boys for the most heinous crimes, that leaves some unsettled.

As usual in America, it's hard to tell if Michael Vick is being focused on because of his celebrity or his race. I would submit, more than likely, it's a bit of both. But, even with my shared concern for animals, it is highly bizarre that in a country that drops cluster bombs and white phosphorous on civilians, has secret prisons world wide and engages in "enhanced" interrogation techniques (torture), the *alleged* acts of one football player manages to strike such an emotional chord--where the dead bodies of men, women and children (mostly of darker hue) don't muster this type of response. When General Tommy Franks, who engineered the invasion of Iraq, infamously stated in regards to civilian casualties, "We don't do body counts," the outrage seemed quite tepid from both media pundits and the American populace as a whole.

Judging from some cursory glances at black blogs and message boards, more than a few other black people share similar sentiments. That's not to say there isn't shock and disgust at the incident as well; black people are pet owners too. However there's been a long held cynical sentiment in the black community that white people (as a collective society) care more about animals than they do about people--especially if those people are not white. As some see it, we can barely get this country to apologise for several hundred brutal years of slavery and lynching; yet the white world rises in righteous outrage over the tragic fate of several dogs--in the South no less. It's interesting to note that in their attempts to locate the origins of America's obsession with gladiatorial combat, no media outlet has yet brought up that just 150 years ago white slave owners often pitted their chained property against each other in similar spectacles, where the "civilised" white gentry would drink, gamble and wager eagerly over which of the fierce "big bucks" would best and bloody the other. Rather tragic, outrageous and barbaric if you ask me.

I usually refuse to get into a debate about "who white people like more" when it comes to animal rights--a psychologically damaging exercise in which one weighs one's worth by the whims of white folks. But when there's barely a peep about say...black males in places like Jena, TX who may face the racial injustice of long-term prison sentences, but a media spectacle over dog-fighting, where everyone is worked into such a frenzy it reaches the hallowed halls of Congress no less, that cynicism about where white society places its concern is hard to suppress.

Seems Dave Zirin at The Edge of Sports, had some similar sentiments, from a different angle, tracing the relationship between sports, dog fighting and American violence.

Who Let the Dogs Out on Michael Vick?

By Dave Zirin


In our sweaty, panting, twenty-four-hour media culture, "presumption of innocence" seems almost quaint, the legal equivalent of a potbellied stove.

This is certainly the feel of things in the curious case of the People vs. Michael Vick. The Atlanta Falcons quarterback was indicted Tuesday on federal charges of conspiracy for alleged involvement in a dogfighting operation in Virginia. The media have released the hounds.

In what can charitably be called a sprint to judgment, MSNBC's Michael Ventre opines that Vick should be "suspended for life" from the NFL: As if he has a desk inside the federal prosecutor's office, Ventre writes, "When the general public starts to hear gory tidbits about the savagery that was allegedly condoned by the Falcons' quarterback, he will be persona non grata in society, let alone the NFL."

Ventre's not the only one in attack mode. Greg Couch of the Chicago Sun-Times has a piece called "Put the Bite on Vick Now." Mark Starr of Newsweek wants him benched immediately. And sports radio has been atwitter with coverage that can charitably be called repugnant. America Online's highly trafficked Fanhouse discussion board turned ugly. The offending posts have now been scrubbed from the board, but when I checked earlier this week, there were calls to "hang him from a tree" as well as a liberal use of the N-word. (Please tell the NAACP that it's not just rappers who say that.)

The case is no longer just about what Vick did or did not do on the property he owned in Virginia that housed an alleged dogfighting operation. It's about celebrity, racism, the South and the precarious position of the African-American athlete. As someone in the Atlanta sports-radio universe described the local populace, "Half hate him. Half don't. Why? He's a black quarterback who represents hip-hop culture."

Michael Vick is in a world of trouble. If convicted, the career of an NFL marquee player--the only quarterback ever to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season--now stands in serious jeopardy.

As sports legal expert Lester Munson explained on ESPN.com, "The government's case includes evidence that Vick and his cohorts 'tested' pit bulls for ferocity. If the dogs failed the test, the indictment charges, they were executed by hanging or drowning. In one case, with Vick present, the document says a dog was slammed to the ground until it was dead. In another incident, a dog was soaked with a hose and then electrocuted. Those aren't the sort of transgressions that lead to probation and community service. It's the kind of behavior that results in punishment, and the punishment will be jail time."

Fighting dogs is an ugly, brutal business, and none of this is to excuse anything that may or may not have happened. But whether Vick is found guilty or not, the self-righteousness of the media and the many Vick-bashers is staggering.

American culture celebrates violent sports--especially football--and is insensitive to the consequences that the weekly scrum has on the bodies and minds of its players. We love a sport where any given play can be a player's last. We accept that after 44-year-old former Philadelphia Eagle Andre Waters committed suicide, the autopsy revealed that his brain resembled someone with early-stage Alzheimer's due to repeated concussions. We ignore that a Hall of Fame running back, the once-unstoppable Earl Campbell, can barely get out of a car without assistance. We forget that Johnny Unitas, the greatest quarterback to play the game, couldn't grip a football by the time of his death.

But in Vick's case, when this media-massaged package of NFL fury fails to remain safely contained on the field, the sports establishment throws up its hands in horror.

I asked one player why some NFL players are attracted to dogfighting, and he said, "It's exciting, it's violent and it's high-impact." That could easily be an ad for the NFL. Another player, when I asked him about dogfighting, called it a case of "trickle-down violence," a pastime in which players make the journey from controlled to controller.

Whether Vick is guilty is for the courts to decide. Meanwhile, let's turn the magnifying glass on a society that condones so much violence in war, film and sport. Let's question the media's rush to judgment when the violence spills over into a shadow game where animals are brutally exploited in the service of violent entertainment. Let's ask why some of these fans can decry the treatment of dogs but barely acknowledge the pain of Earl Campbell. And let's all wonder whether just this once, the media will take a nice cold shower and reflect for just a moment on the role they play in this enduring hypocrisy.

Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket).


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