The silence. The eerie nothingness. The unequivocal lack of support.
It's quiet confirmation that Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick really, really, really screwed up, evidenced by rare zipped lips from Gene Upshaw, Jesse Jackson, the Reverend Al Sharpton and anyone else with half a brain and a quart of conscience.
Well, almost anyone.
Despite his guilty plea on horrific, historic dogfighting charges, Vick is receiving a trickle of backing. From New York Knicks guard Stephon Marbury, who says "From what I hear, dogfighting is a sport." From R.L. White, president of the NAACP's Atlanta chapter, who says "Michael Vick has received more negative press than if he had killed a human being." And locally from black callers to sports talk radio, who say things like, "Vick is just being made an example," "Dogfighting is part of our culture" and "Ain't no worse than deer hunting."
Like few before it, Vick's case is nauseating, polarizing and—God help us—educational.
DOGFIGHTING IS RIGHT UNDER YOUR NOSE
"It's a major deal in North Texas, a major deal right here in Dallas," says Dallas Animal Shelter Commission chairman Skip Trimble. "It's new to the city, and people really don't know it's here. But dogfighting has grown from rural, redneck entertainment to urban big business."
Dogfighters are covert and, before Vick's Bad Newz Kennels leashed the national headlines, their secret society played its games in the dark alleys of anonymity. But Trimble says Dallas and Texas are making progress in turning the halogen lights on their criminal activity. In our city the police and animal control officers are beginning to work in concert and, come September 1, organizing a dogfight in Texas will be a felony.
"We've been finding fights and rescuing eight to 10 dogs here and there," Trimble says. "But those numbers are going to go up."
RACISM IS ALIVE AND WELL
They say Hispanics love cockfighting, white nerds play fantasy football and black males, well, sometimes make that ferociously realistic barking noise to incite aggression, signal machismo or simply give a shout-out.
Thanks to Vick, it'll never sound the same again.
Repeatedly in recent weeks black callers to KTCK-1310 AM The Ticket and KESN-103.3 FM ESPN have demanded leniency and forgiveness of Vick based on a sport they say is culturally inherent, countered by whites calling for Vick to be hanged from the highest tree based on the laws of common decency.
"This one really burns me up because Vick is bringing back all the negative stereotypes of a black quarterback," says KXAS-Channel 5 sports anchor Newy Scruggs. "Just because you grew up around dogfighting doesn't mean you have to take your $130 million and finance the whole damn thing. A lot of players went through hell paving the way for him to be able to play that position in the NFL and this is what he does? As a black community, we can't sit up here and say, 'Well, The Man is picking on him.' Facts are facts, Michael Vick broke the law. Sure there's Paris Hilton and on and on. But we can't excuse Vick's actions by pointing the finger at someone else."
There is, however, hope. Last Tuesday ESPN afternoon host Randy Galloway conducted an "All Brothers Hour," exclusively inviting black callers to weigh in on Vick. The results, he said, were surprising, if not refreshing.
"We asked the question, 'Was justice served?' and we expected all hell to break loose," Galloway says. "But out of 20 calls over 40 minutes, not one said 'No.' Clearly this thing took off totally along racial lines, but I think Vick's pleading guilty changed a lot of opinions."
ATHLETES AT DOGFIGHTS AREN'T AS RARE AS YOU THINK
There's Vick. On the other side, there's Cowboys offensive lineman Leonard Davis, who last spring was given a Compassionate Action Award by PETA for saving a horse that fell in a sinkhole near his Arizona home. And, somewhere in between, there's Nate Newton.
In 1991 Newton was arrested at a dogfight near Liberty, Texas. The charges were eventually dropped because Nate was merely watching, but relationships made at the event led to him spending 32 months in federal prison for toting marijuana.
"I got caught up in it a little, man, but what's wrong is wrong," Newton said during Cowboys training camp in San Antonio. "It's outlawed, bottom line. If Vick ever gets this shadow off him, it'll make him be a better person. I know I am. I was extra stupid. I'm not giving out advice. I live in a glass house and all my windows are broken. But I know how he feels."
SPORTS FANS GOT NOTHIN' ON ANIMAL LOVERS
Despite owning two dogs, three fish and, reluctantly, a backyard full of squirrels, I scoffed at the outpouring of affection for Barbaro. But I'm joining the dog pile of sympathy for these canine "Vick"-tims. Why? Barbaro was pampered; the pit bulls were tortured.
Even though we assume Noah only salvaged two of them as well, dogs are different. Unlike ants, they're loyal. Unlike pigs, they'll alert you to impending danger. The whole "man's best friend" thing seems a tad discriminatory, but comparing dogfighting with deer hunting is absurd. The deer, though at a distinct disadvantage, has a chance to escape. If killed, its death is void of a Vick-like drowning or hanging.
"These dog owners have a sadistic nature that gives them a perverse enjoyment from killing their animals if they don't perform," Trimble says. "Dogs aren't like us. They don't go to school or serve on juries. But they can certainly feel pain."
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See Martha Stewart and Marv Albert back on TV and realize that eventually we'll let the despicable Vick out of the doghouse. But if the woman at Academy Sporting Goods in Plano last week is any indication, for now we're more concerned with halting a generation of dogfighters than pardoning him.
Begged by her son for a pair of Nike Air Zoom Vick IV signature football cleats, Mom snapped, "Over my dead body."
"What this case has brought to light is that there are more dog lovers than sports fans," Galloway says. "With the disclaimer that what Vick did is horrible and inexcusable, there are more important things going on in our world. But this thing has taken off like no other case I remember. It reminds us how powerful the animal lobby is. I don't know which would be worse for Vick, sitting in prison or walking the streets with the PETA commandos waiting for him around the corner."
Actually, both seem doggone appropriate punishments.