Sunday, November 28, 2010

Michael Vick for MVP - Most Valuable Person


On Sunday, Michael Vick led the 7-3 Philadelphia Eagles into Soldier Field to battle a Chicago Bears team that was 7-3 and tied for the NFC North division lead in spite of a porous offensive line and much maligned quarterback in Jay Cutler, who is prone to the inexplicable turnover. Vick is having a MVP caliber season, completing a career high 62.8% of his passes and throwing for 1,608 yards and 11 touchdowns to a remarkable 0 interceptions coming into the game. Renowned for his prowess as a runner, Vick also had 375 yards rushing and 5 touchdowns on the ground. Vick finished Sunday's game on Lake Michigan 29 of 44 passing for 333 yards, 2 touchdowns, and his first interception since Christmas Eve 2006 (he went on an 18-month hiatus shortly after that game) in the 31-26 Bears victory. Despite the Eagles loss, Vick displayed a patience and level-headed decision making in the pocket that he was completely devoid of during his tenure in Atlanta coupled with the freakish athleticism that once made the all -pro quarterback a household name. It is still early but if Vick can continue his renaissance season, sports writers will be hard pressed to deny the 1st overall pick in the 2001 NFL Draft his first league MVP award.

With the emergence of Michael Vick as a legitimate MVP candidate, many of the negative emotions surrounding the inexplicable acts that cost numerous dogs their lives, left many others permanently crippled and separated Vick from his family, friends, millions of dollars in NFL salary and endorsements, and halted a Hall of Fame caliber career for nearly 2 years have reemerged. For many Americans, whose pets are an extension of their families, it is hard to reconcile the atrocities committed by Vick and his cohorts with the propensity for Americans to give second chances and fawn over stories of redemption. None of us will ever forget the evil crimes committed by Vick and many will never be able to find it in their hearts to forgive him for his actions but it is one of the cornerstones of our American system of justice to allow those who have made amends for their improprieties the opportunity to continue their pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

A perfect example of this is the remarkable comeback story of 2010 American League MVP Josh Hamilton. The parallels between Vick and Hamilton's stories are startling at first glance. Like Vick, Hamilton was the first overall pick in his draft, taken in the 1999 Major League Baseball amateur draft by the then Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Hamilton went on the blow almost all of the $4 million dollar signing bonus that he received as a result of drug and alcohol abuse. After years of therapy and a renewed relationship with God, Hamilton finally made his major league debut with the Cincinnati Reds in 2007 (he was left off of the Reds 40-man roster making him a free agent; the Cubs selected him in the 2006 Rule 5 draft and immediately traded him back to Cincinnati for $100,000). In December 2007, the Reds traded Hamilton to the Texas Rangers for two pitching projects. Hamilton went on to put on an astounding display at the 2008 All-Star Game Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium, hitting a record 28 homers in the first round and 35 home runs overall (Justin Morneau of the Minnesota Twins went on to win the competition), endearing him to throngs of baseball fans and fans of redemption alike. Hamilton completed his amazing comeback story in 2010 by leading the majors with a .359 batting average with 32 home runs and 100 runs batted in despite missing 29 games with broken ribs (Vick missed several games with broken rib cartilage early this season). Hamilton also helped the Texas Rangers reach the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, leading them all the way to the World Series where they lost to the San Francisco Giants in 5games.

The story of Josh Hamilton's journey from rock bottom to the pinnacle of success has inspired many adults to make life-altering changes and prevented numerous kids and up-and-coming athletes from making the same mistakes that nearly derailed Hamilton's career. When Hamilton was awarded the American League MVP in mid-November, it was widely viewed as the culmination of an 11-year journey from the absolute lowest point that a human can fall. Why is it that Josh Hamilton can be held up as a shining example of the resiliency of the human spirit and the ability to change one's situation for the better and not Michael Vick? Can the story of Vick's rise and percipitous fall from fame not have the same influence on our nation's youth as Hamilton's story has had and why are we so reluctant as a nation to allow this change to happen?

In a 2005 article by E.L. Worthington, Jr. and N.G. Wade on promoting forgiveness in psychotherapy, the authors found that one of the first tasks of working towards forgiveness is understanding exactly what forgiveness means. Many people believe that forgiveness requires reconciling with the offending party but that is not necessarily the case, especially in situations where reconciliation could place the victim(s) back into an unsafe environment. In Vick's case, his reconciliation came partly in the form of an 18-month federal prison sentence and the payment of millions of dollars in fines and penalties. In a 1997 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, M.E. McCullough, E.L. Worthington, and K.C. Rachal described a set of studies that indicate that when people forgive, it is due in part to their developing empathy for (i.e., feeling compassionate about and understanding the perspective of) the person who hurt them or others.

It may be easier for us to develop empathy for people who are perceived to have only inflicted pain and suffering on themselves than it is to develop a level of personal understanding for folks like Vick that persecuted innocent victims. I also think that, due to the relationships that many people have with their pets, the actions taken by Vick were deemed to be more egregious and hit closer to home. For many, Vick's crimes against those dogs were comparable to the murder of a human being. Additionally, it is likely that there is a cultural element to the levels of empathy developed for Hamilton's shortcomings as opposed to Vick's. All of us know someone or know of someone that has been directly or peripherally afflicted by the scourge of drug and alcohol abuse. Conversely, there are very few people in the United States who were familiar with the underground urban and rural counterculture of dog fighting before light was shed on this sport by the Michael Vick case. In a 2009 article by Worthington et al. in the Journal of Counseling and Development, the researchers found that cross-cultural adaptations of forgiveness interventions were highly effective in reducing the motivation of offended parties that are not a part of the offenders cultural group from seeking revenge against and/or avoiding the offending person. In other words, the more understanding we have about the circumstances behind Vick's upbringing, the more likely we are to be forgiving of him for his crimes. In a country still divided by race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, this may explain why many people are still having a difficult time moving on from Vick's actions.

In spite of the prevalence of negative sentiments surrounding Vick's crimes, the quarterback continues to make amends with his actions and his words. On November 23rd, Michael Vick travelled with Wayne Pacelle, President of the Humane Society of the United States, to talk with students at New Haven's Hillhouse High School. Vick talked about the importance of showing kindness to animals and how everyday he has to face his young daughter, who wants a dog, and explain to her that due to the terrible actions that he perpetrated he is no longer allowed to own pets. This is a part of the price that Pacelle contends that Vick continues to pay on top of the legal obligation already paid to society. That price also includes the constant presence of protesters at Eagles games and at speaking engagements featuring Vick. That price includes parents who keep their kids home from school when they catch wind of Vick coming to their kid's school. That price includes the possibility that Vick may never garner another major endorsement no matter how prolific and spectacular his feats on the field are. Vick has embraced all of these occurrences and said that he sees good coming out of his negative experiences. “I think I’m being used by God because all the laws have changed since my incident,” he said.

Michael Vick also talked to the high schoolers about the importance of listening as opposed to hearing. Vick was reminded of this important lesson on June 25th when Vick co-defendent Quanis Phillips was shot outside Vick's birthday party after the two men had a verbal altercation in which Phillips pushed birthday cake in Vick's face. After a brief investigation by the NFL, Vick was cleared of any wrongdoing and cleared to play the upcoming season. At the time, Vick stated that he should've listened to his mother more intently about his plans to have the birthday party. "If I could re-track and do it all over again, I would have listened to my mom and had [the party] private," Vick said. "Let [my mom] and my fiancée orchestrate the party. ... It goes to show that mommas know best. We all think that certain things we want to do, we can do. But you have to start listening to your mom at some point. They are not going to tell you anything wrong. That was a lesson I learned." This is a lesson that we can all learn from Michael Vick and his mom without having absolutely everything in the world taken from us in the blink of an eye and without being imprisoned in a 4'X10' cell at a maximum security federal prison in Kansas, penniless and alone.

As unforgivable as Michael Vick's crimes were and still are, he has been judged, convicted, and punished in a court of law. I'm not suggesting that you should withhold judgement on Vick. In my opinion, the failure to judge is one of the most egregious crimes that one can commit. I'm imploring you to do the exact opposite - judge the man based on what he has done off the field using the star power that he has reincarnated with his stellar play on the field.

By all accounts Michael Vick is saying all the right things but it is the embarrassment, humility, and pain that tempers these words that we should all keenly listen to. We may never know if the 18-months that Vick spent in purgatory have truly changed him but, so far, his actions have matched his words to the letter. As much as he'd like to change the past 4 years, Michael Vick can't change the things that he's done and the pain that he caused by his actions. None of us can. That's why we should allow him to make amends for his past by the steps that he takes now and in the future. If his present feats on and off the field are any indication of the future, we may be witnessing the maturation of an all-star football player and, most importantly, a true MVP - Most Valuable Person.

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