How Racism Helped Ruin NFL Superstar Michael Vick
Stanley Nelson’s new two-part ESPN documentary “30 for 30: Michael Vick” provides an in-depth look at the rise and fall of the football dynamo turned dogfighting pariah.
I grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia, not far from Newport News, where former NFL star quarterback Michael Vick grew up. I also grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; at the time, Vick was signed to the Philadelphia Eagles after an unlikely comeback from his 23-month jail sentence for dogfighting. Though I understood almost nothing about football—being a basketball, soccer, and tennis fan, my plate was full—the specter of Vick loomed. (People talked.) But because I was the rare black person in white neighborhoods in deeply segregated towns, the surrounding narrative painted Vick as alternately god and devil. When the dogfighting scandal broke out in 2006 and 2007, the vitriol was high—all I knew was that a black football player had been involved in something seedy and violent and white people were deeply and personally upset.
Director Stanley Nelson’s two-part ESPN documentary 30 for 30: Michael Vick explores the facts and mythology surrounding the athlete, from his humble beginnings growing up in the projects to his decision to turn himself in to the authorities to his grand redemption with the Eagles. Nelson takes care to focus on the racism that affected how white animal activists and football fans reacted to the scandal, as well as the high sentence that was handed down to Vick by George W. Bush-appointed district judge Henry E. Hudson. The film also gets deep into the specifics of football, and the racism in how black football players are often seen as more athletic talents than mentally-adept team players, a skill set required for quarterbacks.
Early in the film, we see a clip of the late sports commentator Jimmy Snyder explaining the prowess of African American male athletes according to a wildly offensive yet common eugenicist’s framework: “The slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman, so that he could have a big black kid, see. I mean, that’s where it all started.” The barely-visible sliver of truth in Snyder’s statement is that there is indeed a slave/master dynamic at play in professional sports, where black players especially are seen as the property not only of the league but of the majority white fans who crowd the stadiums and mainly white commentators who speculate in elaborate studios paid for by major corporations.
Like Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson, Vick grew up in the Newport News projects, where violence and the crack epidemic were present, but also, crucially, love and community. Iverson and Vick’s mothers knew each other, and in the documentary, both athletes speak of their strength and commitment to raising them with integrity. The severe governmental neglect wrought upon poor black communities in the U.S. is often discussed as a specific and local problem, but is actually intrinsic to the structure of American society. Unfortunately, despite its focus on race and class, Nelson’s documentary seems to base its arc primarily on Vick’s individuality and acceptance of personal responsibility in the face of wrongdoing. The film never scrutinizes the athletic economy—from college football to the NFL to sports endorsements—that turns players, many black and coming from poverty, into commodities to be bought and sold by owners and institutions.
In place of rigorous structural analysis, there is discussion of the unfairness and racism involved in Vick’s 23-month sentence, with clips of musician Rob Thomas commenting “Did he get the chair? It could’ve been more. I think they should’ve just publicly hung him up” and Fox News parasite Tucker Carlson saying Vick should have been executed for his involvement in the dogfighting ring. The effect isn’t as powerful as Nelson seems to think—we get the sense that there is a lot of racist resentment looming, but we’re not asked to examine how it materializes beyond Vick’s circumstances alone.
Virginia Tech, where Vick’s promise as an athlete was cemented, wasn’t quite the beginning of a fairy tale. College athletes don’t get paid even as the NCAA and the schools they attend make major profits off their backs. This reality is particularly difficult for athletes who come from poverty; scholarships pay for tuition and books, but as these students risk their physical health to play game after game to cheering crowds, their families continue to struggle at home. So Vick leaves Virginia Tech after his sophomore year and announces his decision to enter the draft at the Newport News Boys and Girls Club, an unconventional yet homegrown venue for a press conference.
Vick is the No. 1 draft pick for the Atlanta Falcons, and is able to get his mother, brother and sisters, father, cousins, and friends on the payroll. His financial adviser eventually tells him he can’t pay for everyone’s lives—he needs to look out for himself—but Vick was raised by a community and intends to bring the people who made his fortune possible along with him. “I just never felt like I could be a guy with $10 million in the bank and everyone around me is struggling,” he explains. “What kind of sense is there in that? That’s not goodwill.” In part, it’s this deep sense of loyalty, particularly to friends like Quanis Phillips, that leads to his trouble.
It’s unclear from the film exactly how involved in the dogfighting ring Vick was; it’s clear that he played a role in purchasing and training the dogs, but it’s never revealed who is responsible for killing and burying the ones that aren’t up to snuff or who patched up the wounded. The essential takeaway is that while Vick’s involvement in dogfighting was certainly wrong and difficult for people from very different cultural backgrounds to stomach, it wasn’t the atrocity of epic proportions mainstream media made it out to be. Of course, dogfighting is indeed abuse, and a particularly expansive form of it. Still, as the film is careful to point out, the dogfighting tradition is common in Southern and rural America, and is not specific to any one racial or ethnic group; in fact, older white men have been at the forefront of outlining its practices. And what’s more, in the communities where it happens, police barely interfere in it, and certainly don’t arrest people for holding fights. It was unclear to Vick and his friends just how illegal, or culturally condemned, their actions were.
It’s quickly apparent that the extreme reaction to Vick’s wrongdoing was not simply about moral righteousness, but about racists having the chance to exercise their prejudices out in the open. In the documentary, Vick’s wife Kijafa Frink shares that many of the animal-rights protesters outside the courthouse where Vick was arraigned shouted “some of the worst racial slurs” she had ever heard.
Vick’s incarceration from 2007 to 2008 leads the NFL to reclaim millions of dollars in bonuses, which leads to his declaring bankruptcy. But instead of refusing to pay back his debtors like Donald Trump has done (and as Frink had hoped they would do), Vick insists on paying them all back, and ends up genuinely broke. To him, the NFL represents honor and opportunity, and after jail, he wanted to emulate those perceived qualities by painstakingly reforming himself. To everyone’s surprise, after leaving prison, Vick manages to get back to professional football, signing to the Philadelphia Eagles. In an effort to build goodwill with the sports and local community, Vick even partners with The Humane Society, attending weekly events where he counsels Philadelphia youths on personal responsibility and the horrors of animal cruelty. The film seems to agree with Vick’s idea that honing in on both his individual promise as an athlete and personal redemption as a man, while leaving behind the more prickly parts of his upbringing, makes for the best path forward. Eventually, Vick and Phillips, his best friend for decades who seemingly ran the dogfighting ring, cease contact.
Of course, the reality of redemption in a broken world is much more complicated than what any individual narrative implies. The strongest parts of Nelson’s documentary are in part one, where Vick’s Newport News community is given center stage. Vick emphasizes his love of his hometown, subverting easy stereotypes about the trouble and trauma of growing up in the projects. He explains that he chose Virginia Tech for college because it was the closest option to home, allowing him to drive the five hours down on his days off to visit his family and mentor his younger brother Marcus (who went on to play professionally as well, but faced much more trouble with the law). Vick points out that “you would never look at the place you grew up as a bad place,” making it clear that in fact, the world beyond his tight-knit black community was more coercive than it was redemptive. On one hand, getting himself and his family out of the projects was the North Star, but on the other, “it was almost as if you had to do it; the model we took on was ‘ball, jail, or die.’”
At first, Nelson dives into these very real stakes until finally, he retreats.