Like most of you I’ve been following the Michael Vick story and like most of you I am utterly disgusted by the stories that are now surfacing about the details surrounding his involvement in dogfighting. I hope the judge “throws the book” at Vick and lands him in jail for at least a couple of years if not the maximum sentence of five years. Needless to say, it looks like his professional football career is over along with any chances of redemption in the public mind. Perhaps I am mistaken on this last point, but this story seems to have hit a nerve with the general public. Animal cruelty – especially the abuse of dogs – is unacceptable. I am having difficulty coming to terms with some of the details of torture that involve the drowning and hanging of animals that underperformed. At times I think this should be the standard for Vick on the playing field. And yet I am concerned that our perceptions of Vick are misplaced.
Most of the media attention and the discussions that I’ve taken part in have been about our expectations of Vick, the surprise and confusion involved in someone of his stature engaged in such behavior, and the consequences of that behavior. I’ve heard little about the behavior itself or the broader issue of animal cruelty and the practice of dogfighting. Last night my wife and I talked over dinner about why we are so obsessed or troubled that it is Michael Vick rather than some nameless “Joe”. The problem, it seems to me, is with our expectations of Vick. For most people Vick’s failure seems to be that he failed to engage in the kind of behavior fitting for a “public role-model.” This misses the point entirely. Questions about whether Vick can rehabilitate his career or salvage some of his reputation are all geared to our society’s need to see sports figures and other public personalities as role-models. This story has nothing to do with that. If this was a story about Vick using inappropriate language or striking someone in public than we could have the silly discussion about pubic responsibility.
This story goes beyond that. Suggesting that Vick failed his fans or engaged in behavior inappropriate for someone in his position fails to acknowledge that we are talking about a disturbed individual. Our tendency to inquire about how a wealthy, talented, and successful athlete could take part in all of this suggests that we are not addressing the psychological deficiencies that characterize people who carry out this type of violence. In other words, there is no reason to be more upset or troubled by the fact that the perpetrator of these heinous acts is a celebrity rather than…[complete sentence with image of typical dogfighter].
One of the most important things we learn at an early age is the ability to empathize or sympathize with others. This involves imagining the thoughts and feelings of others as if they are your own. Such a skill is important in the moral development of the child. Most people learn to extend this act of psychological identification beyond our own species to include culturally sanctioned species such as dogs, cats, etc. While that extension is culturally relative it is present in most societies. Regardless of the specifics, the species in question that are usually included exhibit traits that humans identify with, including the ability to experience pain. Our outrage over the Vick story is in part a function of our ability to imagine what those animals went through and the apparent indifference of the perpetrators involved. I like to think that our moral character can be quickly checked by the way we treat the most dependent within our communities, including our domesticated friends. Apparently Michael Vick never learned how to empathize and that is unfortunate.
Ultimately this story’s moral import has nothing to do with Vick’s celebrity stature though the public awareness of dogfighting and related crimes is clearly dependent on it. While I am not a member of PETA or any other animal rights organization they do spend a great deal of time addressing these issues. Unfortunately, it takes a high-profile personality to bring it to the attention of most of us.