Leave Michael Vick Alone: the Racism and Misogyny of Football Fans

I’ve never been more disgusted to be a football fan.

Last week, Michael Vick was named the backup quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It makes football sense. If Ben Roethlisberger is injured (as he is prone to be given his quarterbacking style), Vick provides the athleticism, leadership, and consistency that Charlie Batch was never able to provide. Vick gets to stay in the league, and the Steelers get an experienced backup quarterback on their roster. It’s a win-win, right? Wrong. Once news of Vick’s signing went public, football fans lost their minds. They protested. They wrote letters. They held vigils for Vick’s ‘victims.’ In the words of my mother: they acted a plum fool.

However, what piqued my interest was the moral inconsistency of the reaction. On one hand, people are reacting with moral outrage about the signing of Michael Vick, a man who unquestionably made poor choices, but paid his debt to society. All the while, the same fans are turning a blind eye to Roethlisberger, a man that all evidence suggests committed vicious crimes for which he was never forced to truly atone. I think there can really be only two reasons for this kind of moral inconsistency.

Racism

If you cannot tell, Michael Vick is black and Ben Roethlisberger is white. This is an important fact if you wish to fully understand what is happening here. Whiteness is given another chance. Whiteness is given the benefit of the doubt. It is possible to rehabilitate a white person because they are able to fully embody their humanity. Black people, especially black men, are not afforded this right.

America will never forgive Michael Vick. He was a party to abusing dogs, and dogs are viewed with more empathy than black people. Further, he made the mistake of unapologetically embracing an urban expression of blackness upon becoming a franchise quarterback. His braids were controversial. His on field swagger was controversial. He was everything that struck fear in the hearts of suburban white America. When he was found guilty of dog fighting, this only reinforced what many already believed: Michael Vick is a thug.

Ray Lewis was involved in the death of another black man, and the NFL highlighted him as a story of redemption. Even Steelers fans got teary eyed when he did the squirrel dance after winning the Super Bowl. Yet Vick being involved in killing dogs? That’s just too far. The not very subtle subtext is that the death of dogs bothers fans more than the death of black men. Racism is clearly at work.

ben&vick

Michael Vick and Ben Roethlisberger.

Misogyny

Domestic violence and sexual assault at the hands of collegiate and professional football players has become normalized. We barely bat an eye when it happens, unless it is caught on tape. This desensitization to violence against women creates a culture in which the voices of women are ignored and those who commit these heinous acts are never forced to come to terms with the harm they inflict.

Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault in 2008 and 2010. In 2009 he reached a settlement in the first case, and the 2010 incident never led to criminal charges. The prosecutor was not confident he would be able to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. While neither victim ever recanted their accusation, he was never found guilty of sexual assault in a court of law. Citing the NFL’s personal conduct policy as the reason, Roger Goodell suspended him without pay for the first six games of the 2010 season. But folks are mad at Vick.

What this communicates to women is that sports fans will forgive a man that all evidence suggests is guilty of rape, but they will not forgive a man guilty of killing dogs. This places the pain of animals above the violation of women. It is this kind of inattentiveness to the voices of women that allows a culture of misogyny to thrive in NFL locker rooms.

I’m not excusing Vick for his past misdeeds. What he did was wrong. However, he paid his debt to society. The moral inconsistency of the response to Vick is influenced by the racism and misogyny that has always been a feature of NFL fandom. Get yourselves together football fans, your racism and misogyny is showing.

Lawrence Ware is a professor of philosophy and diversity coordinator for Oklahoma State University’s Ethics Center. He can be reached at:  Law.writes@gmail.com.

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