One way for a formerly incarcerated Black man in America to be dinner table talk at the White House is to be in the running for NFL MVP. Most Black men who are released from prison, whether after 18 months or 18 years, face layers of disadvantage and discrimination and for every 100 job applications they put in, only 4 will even get an interview. But then there is Michael Vick.
In the middle of a career which seemed to be tailing away from superstardom, Vick got caught in the middle of a dog-fighting gambling fiasco. Dogs were killed. The entire episode turned into a target for animal lovers, but a hint of hypocrisy lurked across a broad public mainstream who also take their children to the zoo and eat meat, seemingly ignorant as to the treatment of those animals. Vick didn’t seek to excuse or justify his behavior. He pled guilty and threw away tens of millions of dollars per year… and became Public Enemy #1 (sorry Chuck D).
Vick went to Leavenworth prison, the former Federal Maximum Security (now a Medium) which housed many of the most notorious gangsters in history, including a few Rhode Island ‘Good Fellas’ who told me a story or two. It was the long-time prison for Leonard Peltier (now in Lewisburg USP), the controversial political prisoner likely framed-up during the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations to destroy the American Indian Movement and other civil rights advances in America. Peltier is widely considered a highly spiritual man, and a born leader. If Vick overlapped with Peltier and were able to walk the yard together, one can only imagine the wisdom that can pass between two exiles.
Vick was possibly also incarcerated with Michael “Second To” Nunn, the former Middleweight world champion and 1988 KO magazine “Fighter of the Year.” Nunn (now in Bastrop, TX, a Minimum Security) received a classic Drug War sentence for paying an FBI agent for a kilo of cocaine. While Vick was being drafted into the League, Nunn was on his way to a 24 year sentence. In the Feds, that means 20 years and 8 months to serve. The rationale for the sentence was Nunn’s steady but petty criminal history, which never landed him in prison. Now our society has dedicated about $1 million to punish Michael Nunn. At any rate, Vick could have found a trainer in Nunn on par with Apollo Creed in Rocky III.
Why bring up Peltier and Nunn, or reference other prisoners during Vick’s prison time? Because people, including Obama, bring up the topic of Vick “turning his life around,” his “rehabilitation,” and the like. According to Eagles owner Jeff Lurie, “[Obama] said, ‘So many people who serve time never get a fair second chance. He was … passionate about it. He said it’s never a level playing field for prisoners when they get out of jail. And he was happy that we did something on such a national stage that showed our faith in giving someone a second chance after such a major downfall.”
Fortunately, most people have never served time in prison. Unfortunately, most (if not all) public commentary on Michael Vick is coming from folks who never served time in prison. They have little conception about how the man could have developed his new “maturity.” As someone who has been there, done that… a lot happens while staring at a concrete wall, reading books in silence, writing letters to loved ones, and walking the yard with a guy for hours and weeks and months.
I must admit that when Michael Vick returned last year, I thought he could be an All-Pro wide receiver, perhaps a talented cornerback. I just couldn’t imagine taking a few years off from calling plays. Vick’s speed and toughness masked the fact that he was an impatient QB, never checking down to the third, fourth, and fifth options. Unlike a Drew Bledsoe, who would be sacked, Vick would hit the turbo and take off. That style has never proven to deliver NFL championships, with famous “runners” Randall Cunningham and Steve Young honing their arms and minds before finding success.
Having given up on McNabb, the City of Brotherly Love had a young gunslinger, Kevin Kolb, who reminds me of Drew Brees. If not for Kolb’s injury, would we be singing the Michael Vick song? If Vick were having a decent year for the abysmal Carolina Panthers, in a small television market, would we Obama’s daughters ask their dad what he thinks about the resurgent QB? Tonight against the Vikings…Michael Vick, two years removed from a prison cell, is poised to set career highs in touchdowns, and has far exceeded himself in completion percentage and QB rating. The Eagles, with a win, will have a chance at the #2 seed in the NFC, and possibly need to go through Atlanta (Vick’s former team) to get in the Super Bowl. Talk about storybook.
But what of the deeper societal questions? Do we as a general public feel, like President Obama says, “think that individuals who have paid for their crimes should have an opportunity to contribute to society again.”? My experience in advocating for the restoration of felons’ voting rights tells me “yes,” when they get a first hand opportunity to People from all walks of life still believe in this concept. We knocked on doors, we did presentations, and we won the votes- overwhelmingly, where we focused our efforts.
Now as many statewide advocates turn to job discrimination, will Michael Vick or President Obama weigh in? That little “box” for applicants to check, when they have been convicted of felonies, are commonplace on entry level job applications and the leading cause of applications hitting the trash before getting an interview. “Ban the Box” has passed in dozens of cities dealing with the front-line issue of employing the formerly incarcerated. Minnesota set a new standard two years ago, followed by New Mexico, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in passing legislation to give applicants a chance to explain themselves at the interview.
I’ve been part of advocating Ban the Box in Rhode Island. Representative Scott Slater proposed the first bill last year, and is set to go back at it in a few weeks time. When speaking with people, be they church folk, law enforcement, or business people, most ascribe to the concept that “you’ve done the time, you paid for your crime.” And those with experiences, tend to recall that the formerly incarcerated were the “hardest working” they’ve had, and “appreciated the job.” Eagles Coach Andy Reid might say the same of Vick.
Michael Vick left prison in Bankruptcy. Expensive things, including taking care of family members, require maintenance money. Lawyers and the Tax Man have a way of eating up funds quite quickly. He needed the NFL paycheck to get out of the hole. President Obama, by all accounts, never took a step back in his life. It shows good choices, but also reflects on growing up with privilege rather than the ‘hood. Sometimes one’s friends and family mean well, but get stuck in not doing well. The tragedy of young Vick is that there were not strong men in his crew saying, “Listen man, you gotta get outta here. This is for people who ain’t got nothin’ else.”
It remains to be seen if Michael Vick can be part of helping prisoners, or other formerly incarcerated people assert their civil rights and reclaim their dignity. A national group of such people are convening in Alabama, February 23rd – 26th, and will be seeking funds to do so. Meanwhile, is Obama paying lip service to an issue affecting his sport-loving conscience… or will he provide a respite to 30 years of Incarceration Nation? Michael Vick can’t even vote for Obama in his home state of Virginia, until he gets an executive pardon in another. Does Obama know that? And will he support the Democracy Restoration Act to intervene?
Reagan and Bush were clear about their policies, and colluded with nefarious conservatives to clearly lie and manufacture myths regarding crack cocaine. Clinton played both sides, with lip service to civil liberties and the plight of poor folks, while overseeing the total immersion into the Prison Industrial Complex. Bush, who executed more people than any Governor in history, apparently realized that people can not only make money off prisons, but also on the “rehabilitation” of former prisoners. His Second Chance Act did a lot of good, but it is legitimate to question the motives.
Obama has reduced the Crack/Cocaine disparity from 100-1 to 19-1, but in these tough economic times it is clear that they aren’t tough on prisons and police. Will he mold the Drug War into a “harm reduction” model, or remain behind the times? Perhaps the gleam of a Michael Vick Super Bowl ring will hypnotize the President, while Vick quarterbacks a team of policy analysts and advocates into the Oval Office.
With all that said… Go Steelers! Our own QB seems to be on a similar trajectory following his own legal turmoil and punishment. The NFL in 2010 is the Year of Redemption. The lesson is we all want to get it together; we all want to get it right. But sometimes we need somebody to give us a chance to do just that.