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12.23.10

Time to Forgive Michael Vick

Yes, the maligned Eagles quarterback proved himself a sadistic narcissist. But he’s served his time, and he’s dazzling in his second act. Buzz Bissinger on why America should let Vick off the hook.

I have gone round and round on the moral merry-go-round on Michael Vick.

When I first learned about what he had done in 2007—participated in acts of torture that were gleefully sadistic—I was sickened. I could just imagine Vick and his posse yukking it up as another dog went into spasmodic jerks of electrocution, or yelped in harrowing screams as another one was being hung. But these boys liked their deaths slow and showy.

When the Philadelphia Eagles signed Vick as a backup quarterback in August 2009, I was shocked. Michael Vick was an inhumane bastard; the animal part really didn’t matter. Michael Vick deserved no second chance, and it was equally appalling that meek mousy Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, who prided himself on fielding teams clean of scandal, sanctioned it.

Before the current season, when Vick was at a birthday party in his honor in Virginia Beach that he should never have attended, given the guest list, and a former co-defendant got shot, I went on local radio and said the Eagles should be ashamed and he should be cut.

I was wrong.

Which in the minds of many, since I live in Philadelphia and have watched without a doubt the most exciting performance of a player in years, makes me a duplicitous turncoat. But I was still wrong.

He needs to be forgiven.

The truth of sports is that performance always trumps character. The truth of sports is that performance always excuses character.

I have to come to believe that Michael Vick has reversed himself. I believe the words of contrition he expresses are true. I believe that the trips he makes to schools to talk about animal cruelty are not some public-relations plot, at least not completely. I believe this knowing full well that trying to get inside the head of another person is basically fruitless. I can’t fathom my own head. But Vick did pay for what he did. He went to prison for 21 months. He filed for bankruptcy and lost tens of millions of dollars.

Still, at the beginning of the season, that did not excuse him in my eyes. And yes, if the Eagles were draggling along with a 6-8 record, instead of 10-4 atop the NFC East, he would still be just another sports thug to all of us.

The truth of sports is that performance always trumps character. The truth of sports is that performance always excuses character.

It isn’t just how Vick has played this season. It is the way he has played, showing a football maturity never witnessed before. When he was with the Atlanta Falcons before the off-season torture sessions started, he was an out-of-control freelancer. He clearly did not listen to his coaches. He used wildness and inconsistency as his own art form; random bucket spills of paint on the canvas into a worthless mess.

This season he has done something at quarterback he has never remotely approached, which is stay in the pocket. This season he is hitting receivers 60 yards downfield on a dime, instead of pre-torture when he ran all over the place because he liked to showboat his elusiveness and speed, then flung the ball 70 yards only to miss a receiver by a good 10 yards because they had broken their patterns and had no idea where the hell to go. This season he is running when he should.

For the rocking-chair print sportswriters, who do virtually no reporting anymore and write on autopilot cliché and wonder why their product is slipping into confetti, Vick is of course the effortless American tale—from the heights to the depths to the heights. Everybody has wanted to interview him, and he has granted most of them. What generally happens in such cases is the death knell of increased expectations. Most athletes, with the exception of a Tom Brady or an Albert Pujols or a Derek Jeter (up until he needed a motorized wheelchair to get back any range at shortstop), do their best under the radar. The key is to lower expectations, and Vick was only raising them. He was talking too much and when he said he would like to have a dog someday, the collapse was almost in view.

I knew it would come to a halt in last week’s game against the New York Giants. Quarterback Eli Manning, shaking off his usual Gomer Pylian look of cluelessness, played well, and the Giants defense clearly figured out Vick by applying constant pressure. I smiled with the Cheshire Cat of satisfaction—he had finally imploded. But then came the fourth quarter when the Eagles scored 28 points in seven minutes and 28 seconds, so much of it engineered by Vick’s intuitive passing and running.

Whether you’re an Eagles or Giants sycophant, you had to be dazzled, as the only black mark was receiver DeSean Jackson’s touchdown punt return with no time left in which he straddled the end zone like an amphetamined drum major punk who will one day get knocked out of football by a kamikaze defensive back all too happy to use the helmet.

Vick’s performance after the game was admittedly drenched in the NFL patois of I-Couldn’t-Have-Done-It without my teammates and coaches and God and those serving in Afghanistan. But there was also a poise to Vick, as well as the scent of confidence that he has become the person, and the player, he never could have been before the exposure of his sadism.

It is really matter of serendipity that Michael Vick has changed, and the over-under on bamboozlement is still 50 percent. Like any great athlete, the skills are recognized before the diapers come off. Vick went into the steel bubble of coddling, ass-kissing by pathetic grown men crawling on hands and knees to kiss his feet with even more apparent fervor than New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan (see YouTube), and thousands cheering. His only true religion was the attitude of impregnability all pro athletes possess, the belief that they have a lifetime license to do no wrong no matter the obvious evil. Somebody will always bail them out because they always are.

Our prison-obsessed society is rooted in punishment, but prison can occasionally change a man. Particularly a man who is granted the mercy of a second act beyond maybe getting hired as a tattoo artist. When he signed with the Eagles, Vick knew this was his final moment. Most people blow it because of denial or self-pity or anger or a surprising propensity for fuck-upism.

It remains to be seen what Michael Vick does when adversity hits, because it will hit. But I root for him now, on the field of course because I am a sports whore, but also as a man who maybe, long after his career is over, will be held up as an example of what can happen when the athletic bubble pops and the days of narcissism and obscene immaturity end. If he is blessed by anything, it is the fact that the bubble did explode. And maybe that is the enduring lesson of Michael Vick.

Every other pro athlete should be so lucky.

Buzz Bissinger, a sports columnist for The Daily Beast, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August . He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.