The Magazine

The Misuse of Remorse

When is a crime paid for?

Aug 10, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 44 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Since late 2007, when Michael Vick, the former star quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, was incarcerated for running a dog-fighting club out of his Smithfield, Virginia, home, a lot of things have broken his way. Vick, now 29, was able to spend the last two months of his sentence under house arrest. Former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, a patient and generous man, has agreed to help mentor him. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has okayed a conditional return to playing pro football no later than the third weekend in October.

No less significant, the entire game of professional football has been revolutionized in Vick's absence to become more friendly to Michael Vick. He is a good passer, but he is the greatest running quarterback ever. And last year, in the third week of the season, the previously lackluster Miami Dolphins unveiled a new "wildcat" formation in a game in which they did not just beat but demolished the New England Patriots, 38-13, handing the Pats their first loss since 2006. (Other teams had been experimenting with it.) The wildcat allows the quarterback to play a variety of roles. He can carry the ball on set running plays (not just scrambles and quarterback draws). He can catch short passes. By the end of the season a lot of teams were using the wildcat. And as Greg Cote, an excellent writer for the Miami Herald, wrote this week: "The wildcat and Vick's skill set are the greatest combination since peanut butter and jelly."

The odd thing is that, by the middle of this week, no team had shown the slightest interest in signing Vick. The Dolphins actually ruled it out. So did the Washington Redskins, the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Detroit Lions, the worst team in NFL history. Only the Baltimore Ravens admitted considering it. Why is this?

One can point to the heinousness of Vick's crime. Not only is dog-fighting hard on dogs, Vick was found to have participated in killing some of the wounded ones. Between his arrest and his sentencing two years ago, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals demonstrated outside the Falcons' training camp and outside the NFL offices in New York. This is a practical problem for whichever team signs Vick. But it should not be a moral problem. Treating animals well is important. Treating one's fellow humans well is more important. Athletes who have killed a person or beaten girlfriends and strangers have been welcomed back to their leagues.

No one who knows Vick well considers him a monster. He has a lot of the marks of a genuinely decent person. There was an interesting profile of him in Sports Illustrated a couple of years ago that sought to explain how he got into so much trouble. Former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, a pillar of black Atlanta society, who had met Vick during his stint with the Falcons, pointed to some danger signs. One was that Vick hadn't changed his group of friends. He had remained in touch with poor and unsophisticated friends and family members from Newport News, Virginia, where everyone knew him as "Ookie." Young described him as "young and country." Others mentioned "ghetto loyalty" and saw Vick as being, like a lot of black athletes, "held captive by a code that requires them to help neighborhood friends." This is the theme of all profiles of Michael Vick.

Needless to say, there is a good side to that. Vick is loyal. He put old friends in charge of managing his endorsement contracts. He did a lot of good for the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Hampton Roads and for many other organizations that help poor kids. One night, at the height of his travails in the summer of 2007, a local community center sponsored a "community hug" for Vick. The director of the center described the evening to USA Today. Local youths had told him that "if PETA showed up in this neighborhood, they'd better bring Saint Peter with them."

Ingrid Newkirk of PETA told the New York Times last week: "We continue to ask Mr. Goodell to put him through psychological counseling and testing to see if he can be remorseful." It was Vick's lack of "remorse" that led the judge in his case to slap him with a longer sentence than his fellow defendants. But one cannot measure remorse. (One can measure servility, which is perhaps what those who call for remorse are generally seeking to procure.) And why should we care about remorse? We don't need Vick to love dogs. We just need him not to repeat his crime.