Cult Grade: The Newz
America makes stories. It is a desperate national game, to try to jam their heaving mass of difference into narratives that suit ad breaks – and the problem then is that you miss stuff. Michael Vick, as long as you leave out who I suspect Michael Vick actually is, makes a great story. The kind of story that gives a producer palpitations at the chance to do the trailer for it. Coming out of college, and before that Newport News, Virginia – the kind of town where all kids know what gunfire sounds like – Vick reinvented the quarterback position. His passing was decent, occasionally uncannily laser-guided. But his running with the ball – which prior to him quarterbacks generally did as a quick-fix or a last resort – was at a level that made it so that, after Vick, if a quarterback could only pass, he looked limited, out of touch. To this day he holds the record for the largest number of successful yards run by a quarterback. Agile, impulsive, box-office yards.
He got the American coronation. The cover of EA Sports' Madden NFL series, the sneaker line; and, by cultural coincidence, playing for Atlanta in that mid-noughties period you might recall as when Lil Jon (another Hotlanta resident) was yelling YAY-UH into every available microphone meant, as Lil Wayne puts it, "If Michael Vick didn't have a cameo in your video it wasn't too cool of a video." I quite enjoyed hearing the rapper Scarface say the reason the hip-hop community embraced Vick was because, like them, "He could turn something into nothing." I'm guessing in his excitement he just got mixed up, but Freud would enjoy that one.
To celebrate their new superhero, the Atlanta Falcons, who picked Vick first in the 2001 draft, made him the best-paid player in the history of the league in 2004, $130million over 10 years, with a record-breaking $37million guaranteed. I learnt that NFL teams aren't actually obliged to honour an entire contract – just in case you lock a player into an expensive one and he then gets his head taken off halfway into it and you need to dump him on the cheap. The average lifespan of an NFL player is four years; in 2015, Sports Illustrated found three-quarters of them 'go bankrupt or are under financial stress' just two years after retirement. With its gilded circle of mega-money millions-guaranteed (78% white) quarterbacks directing a mass of poorer bodies to do the dirty work and be disposed of as cheaply as possible, you'd have to conclude that America sure doesn't do symbolism anyone could miss.
"This is a terrific day for Michael, for Atlanta Falcons fans, and for the entire Falcons organisation," said chairman Arthur Blank at the time of the contract-signing in 2004. So, one out of three. Vick? "Being the highest-paid player doesn't mean anything to me." Glad we got that cleared up. He'd make the "not about the money" claim in somewhat different circumstances a few years later, trying to avoid extended prison time after the Virginia police dug up the bodies of a number of pitbulls that had been hung, drowned, shot and electrocuted in the woods behind Vick's property.
Point of Entry: Low
Upon the discovery of the Bad Newz kennels – a dog-fighting compound named after the hood nickname for Newport News – America got to see what might be her favourite member of the Entertainment family, now that Money had done her turn. Next up: Downfall. You know the drill: cable-news helicopters hovering over the property, those stern-faced guys in navy zip-ups marching past the cameras, the news anchor putting on his best sombre sombrero to say, "Michael Vick, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback who until now..." The reason more than a few Americans might seem somewhat deranged to overseas eyes is because their heads get stuck in all this, like a cat chasing a laser-pointer, and then can't drop it.
In the Virginia backwoods the reality was grim. More than 70 caged dogs, mainly 'pitbulls in various conditions', plus a sunken pit for them to fight in, plus a burial site for the ones deemed 'not good enough'. You'd think – although eventually I stopped thinking – that even in the most squalid of bloodsports, those dogs still didn't have to be hung, or drowned, as a way to remove them from your game. This is a punishment, is it? Before you even get to the legal consequences, the America consequences for Vick, next seen stepping out of an SUV into a hail of camera-fire on his way into court, were inevitable. The TV backlash, the endorsements vaporised, sneaker lines pulped. In court – "It was literally like a Hollywood movie set," says a deranged ESPN journalist of the first day of the trial – he changed his initial blanket not-guilty plea to a guilty plea regarding the dogfighting and animal cruelty. To escape a more serious charge, via the logic of capitalism's legal system, of 'gambling without our permission.' In 2007, the country witnessed what to us would be roughly equivalent to 'John Stones begins 23-month sentence for dogfighting and cruelty to animals.'
If you know anything about American stories, you know this one isn't finished. You know what has to happen. When he comes out of prison, Vick must apologise. How else can we move on? You can already see the set; that soft-focus lighting, possibly a large vase of flowers on a baroque piece of furniture, some TV dweeb in the role of 'concerned-but-just headmaster.' This is where it gets interesting. After his apology, Vick was allowed back into the NFL, under auspices of 'rehabilitation' – and also because he has something of a guardian angel, in Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who got him hired as back-up. And also because you can bet someone further up at the Eagles said, "Could do a job for us... be cheap, too." And truly, watching some of the games in an electrifying late-season surge when, with McNabb injured, he almost made a swing for the fences of Entertainment's Holy Grail, the Comeback, you can see that when his mind was engaged, Vick was unstoppable. No defence could ever arrange itself fast enough. He took the Eagles from 31-12 down against the Giants with eight minutes left to 38-31 winners. But it didn't work out. Maybe his mind de-engaged. They lost in the first round of the playoffs.
Honestly, none of all that really matters to me. I'm still too gripped by what happened during the apology to notice.
The Moment: The Apology, 60 Minutes (CBS), 2009
How do you know dogfighting is wrong? You just do, right? If you can't feel empathy for dogs, who will take practically anything as long as you'll still let them be your friend, then perhaps you and empathy aren't the easiest bedfellows. Vick? The older dudes in his neighbourhood did it, and the police weren't that bothered by them doing it. "So that right there made me feel like, okay, this is not as bad as it may seem." Okay, Mike – that weird wording probably qualifies as justification for you getting mixed up in a one-off dog-fight somewhere. But buying a property specifically to finance a gigantic dog-fighting facility and then a slaughterhouse behind it? We might be talking about something a little different here.
Gauging where a person's character is at is such a fine-margins thing. For the first few minutes of his apology I thought Vick just seemed completely downtrodden by the experience. Then I started to think – is his voice going to change at all? Just this low drawl. Why is he smiling? Is he smiling? There's a wraith of a smile going on beneath his cheeks the whole time, impossible to pin down except for one moment when, hilariously, it slips out, upon informing Mr Headmaster he cried so many nights in jail. "You cried a number of nights?" No word of lie: Vick's "Yeah" in response (1:36) comes with the glimpse of an expression you'd expect to see if one of his buddies asked him if he'd got on well with Miss Hotlanta 2004 last night. Okay, television, I'll say I cried, you'll ask me 'did you cry?', and I'll say, yeah. I win. If you concentrate really hard, Vick is sufficiently thrown off by this sudden outing from his underlying personality that he then spends the next 10 seconds itemising 'A year in my life' while he tries to re-establish control. "Not being out on the football field, being in a prison bed, in a prison bunk, writing letters home..."
All of this is only visible in glimpses. Guys like this, they know what's up. What polite society – as America so desires to be – expects. Their insides must be bound up, and not let out to play anywhere but among trusted buddies (employees?) in the backwoods. I suspect that Michael Vick – the real Michael Vick – thought, if I want to torture a few dogs behind my house that's my own damn business. I'm a superstar.
Superstars, in America, aren't meant to be like that. My first entry for The Cult was Michael Jordan, who remains a living American God principally because, I think, his career fit the narrative in such a way you could believe the stories television tells are true. Which is a pretty godlike achievement, if you think about it. Fitting that my last entry should be the bad news about how naïve it is to think the people you see in front of you are TV personalities.
3) Need for stimulation. 5) Cunning and manipulative. 7) Shallow effect. 8) Callousness and lack of empathy. 14) Impulsivity. Points on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist (1980).
Still, Michael Vick has made some pretty long-lasting efforts since leaving prison to campaign against cruelty to animals. His discussion of enjoying getting good at chess while in jail is one of the most compelling speeches I ever heard an athlete make. Life just isn't black or white.