The Michael Vick Challenge

Michael VickThere’s no real reason why the town where I grew up needed to replace the grass on the high school’s varsity football field with the expensive and aesthetically jarring sport-carpeting known as field turf. But my North Jersey hometown has apparently decided to rebrand itself, from the (incandescently carpeted) ground on up, as a Jersey-accented analogue to “Friday Night Lights”‘ Dillon, Texas. The process is going well, judging by the high school team’s wins and losses (and, anecdotally, judging by the increases in reported incidences of high-school bullying and the number of middle-aged males in the local supermarket rocking the windbreaker-reliant Offensive Coordinator Look). That the town is doing this maybe shouldn’t be surprising – no place so ruby-red in its Republicanism could stay fired up about soccer forever – but it feels strange all the same. I may be deep in the weeds of early-onset curmudgeonhood here, but I remember my hometown as, in keeping with its general tone of apathetic idyll, a place that held football and its related manias at a sensible remove. I was raised a knowledgeable but casual Giants fan among other knowledgeable-but-casuals. All of which I suppose makes it strange – and I want to be very careful about how I phrase this – just how much I fucking hate the Philadelphia Eagles.

The strange part is that I’ve never loved the Giants enough to justify hating their chief rivals. And I still don’t care about them much, really: the Giants are my default team, but from their hatchet-faced Savonarola of a coach on down, they’re far too boring for me to really make an effort. But given my (probably unfair) impression of Eagles fans – namely that they are the most bigoted, bilious, and pissily unsatisfiable bunch in the league, thanks in part to a local sports media that’s even more repellent – and despite myself, I do legitimately fucking hate the Eagles. They’ve made this easy for me by employing some pretty loathsome dudes in recent years, too, starting with headhunting safety Brian Dawkins, a true pioneer in the weaponization of the football helmet.

But my (fucking) hatred has not prevented me from liking certain Eagles. Philadelphia’s weirdly, viciously maligned ex-quarterback Donovan McNabb is one of these. And, as faintly unpleasant as it feels to acknowledge, current Philly QB Michael Vick is another. McNabb is coming back to Philadelphia this weekend to play the Vick-led Eagles, which has led to some very predictable sportswriting. Anyway, whether or not Eagles fans – as previously noted, a joyless, bellowing herd of perspectiveless barf monsters – do or don’t boo Donovan McNabb is less interesting to me than how they and the broader football scene have responded to their new quarterback.

Some of the bile directed at McNabb by Philadelphia fans found its source at earth’s largest naturally occurring wellspring of bile: Rush Limbaugh’s fat nightmare face. In 2003, during his brief, inexplicable and predictably disastrous stint on ESPN’s pre-game show, Limbaugh argued that McNabb’s success was a creation of the liberal sports media. “The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback can do well,” Limbaugh said, very loudly, very confidently, and very stupidly. “They’re interested in black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well.” McNabb had played poorly over the first two weeks of that season, and the Eagles were 0-2 at the time of Limbaugh’s comments. Limbaugh, resplendent and gleeful amid his self-manufactured controversy, resigned from ESPN the following week. (The risible idea of a liberal sports media is best ignored, although the fact that Limbaugh floated it is yet another example of just what an unbelievable asshole he is.) The Eagles, for their part, went on to finish 12-4 and won the NFC East before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champs in the NFC Championship Game; McNabb made the Pro Bowl and ranked seventh in the NFL in passer rating.

It was a typical season for McNabb, in that way – both he and his team were successful, and he was nevertheless cavalierly criticized by a self-satisfied Caucasian know-nothing with a chip on his shoulder. McNabb objected to Limbaugh’s comments, which only made things worse – click on the words “weirdly, viciously maligned” above and you’ll read about Eagles fans lobbing racial slurs and, more saliently, blame-the-victim taunts of “Waaa, I’m black!” at their team’s Pro Bowl quarterback after the Limbaugh affair. Obviously Rushbo shouldn’t have been on TV at all – for reasons including but not limited to the curdled marzipan of TV visage to his ugly, ugly brain – but the guy Limbaugh should’ve been criticizing, if he just had to troll it up, was Michael Vick, who was then quarterbacking the Atlanta Falcons.

And not because Vick was pursuing the disgusting off-field pastime of running a dogfighting ring, for six brutal years, out of a home he owned in Smithfield, Virginia. We didn’t know that yet, and Vick was four years away from going to jail for that offense. Still, though, Vick’s play was a challenge to everything that Limbaugh held dear as a race-baiting clown and avowed football conservative. The combination of Atlanta’s wide-berth coaching and Vick’s uncanny football gifts enabled him to utterly upend the aesthetics of the most hallowed position in the world’s most intellectually conservative sport. Vick was simultaneously the cause of and solution to everything wrong with Atlanta’s offense, but it didn’t matter to anyone who watched him play – in my lifetime, at least, there has never been a NFL player more exciting or challenging to watch.

Vick wasn’t the sort of approachable, just-having-fun-out-there playmaker that Brett Favre is – where Favre’s admirers see a pickup-game genius at work even in The Craggy One’s most egregious fuck-ups, Vick played quarterback in a strange, surprising way that hadn’t been seen before. Vick’s play was vicious in the way truly avant-garde things are – where Favre’s just-having-fun creativity flatters his audience’s sentimental understanding of football, Vick shredded and confounded those expectations, using his legs and arm and weirdly manic poise to make plays fans had never even dared to expect. The general-use cliché about Vick would be that he “revolutionized” his position, but that’s not really apt – it had theoretically always been possible for quarterbacks to do what Vick regularly did, but no one had previously been able to do it. It’s easy to see why Limbaugh picked McNabb as his target – because Limbaugh wanted to make a spectacle of himself, and because McNabb is articulate and opinionated and thus Limbaugh’s least-favorite type of minority, and because Limbaugh is an unbelievable asshole and knows nothing about anything and I know I’ve emphasized that enough but it just feels so right. But for a true football conservative, which I’d have to imagine Limbaugh fancies himself to be, Vick was an awesome nightmare.

His semiotic payload, we now know, was the least-literal component of Vick’s manifest nightmarishness. Everyone knows about all this, now – the otherworldly awfulness of what went on at Bad Newz Kennels, Vick’s ensuing jail sentence and richly deserved humiliation and bankruptcy and NFL suspension. And, finally, the tenuous redemption that Vick has earned by coming back as a backup and then coming off the bench to play better than basically any NFL quarterback not named Peyton Manning over the first three weeks. It’s currently received sport-pundit wisdom that the 30-year-old Michael Vick currently starting for the Eagles is different from the one who used to start for the Falcons. I can’t speak to whether or not he has matured or not as a person (and neither can the people who sorta-covered him for years while Vick was devoting his personal time to exploring the further reaches of sadism) but I’m not really sure it matters.

I also don’t know that he’s gotten any better as a player. Vick has run up his numbers against the flubby defenses of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions. He’s also surrounded by a better supporting cast than he ever had in Atlanta – and, for what it’s worth, a better crew of receivers than McNabb had in any of his Philadelphia seasons before last year – and… and whatever, really. Who gives a shit if the Eagles beat the Redskins on Sunday, or that Vick has put up mindbending stats against the 29th and 30th best defenses in the NFL. I, for one, do not give a shit about that.

But Michael Vick is interesting in a way that Sunday’s game isn’t. As an admirer of what he does to simultaneously explode and expand the game of football, I’ll watch Vick play whenever I can. But that means accepting the moral challenge inherent in making Michael Vick one’s Sunday entertainment. Everyone knows what Vick did, and no one is pardoning it. His horrific past behavior makes a turd-in-punchbowl appearance in everything written about him – even in this fluffy style-section piece about his fiancee’s costume jewelry line – and it should. It will be part of his epitaph, and it deserves to be. That the NFL offers numerous other political and ethical irredeemabilities and outrages, and that Vick is not alone in his sociopathy – Arizona pass rusher Joey Porter, for one, has a dodgy history with vicious pets that once led him to issue a statement containing the sentence, “I am saddened to learn that my dogs escaped from my yard and attacked and killed a horse” – excuses nothing.

Vick is a challenge to fandom’s (and indignation’s) simpler comforts. So much of what gets said and read about the NFL is stupid, facile stuff – the idiotic Modern Gladiators pomp and armchair tough-guy rip jobs in the media; the sour macho dullardry of the Winning Is The Only Thing catechism. And fans are conditioned to pursue a stupid, facile experience from football – the too-easy sentimentality; the giddy imperviousness (“Waaa, I’m black!”) of demanding from a safe distance things of thoroughbred athletes which we wouldn’t demand of ourselves; the mostly innocent awe. As surely as he did to the NFL’s old Quarterback In The Gray Flannel Suit ideal, Vick explodes and problematizes all that.

Watching Vick is a complicated experience. His transcendent talent makes him impossible to resist – he’s just too beautiful out there – but his brilliance is tough to enjoy alongside the knowledge of who he is and what he did. But the challenge Vick presents is the NFL’s broader ethical challenge in microcosm – both are fascinating and even exhilarating to watch, and both beg the questions of how much cruelty you’re willing to accept with your genius, and how much you’re willing to forget in exchange for seeing something memorable.

As for the picks… I don’t know, I’m sorry? I’m sorry that I’m going to need a bunch of 10-6 weeks just to get back to even, and that between me and the foreign currency involved in these predictions, only the currency has shown the ability to put up a 10-6 week. I’m tempted to make all the same picks as Toonie this week, just to ensure that the coin finally goes 6-10, too. But I’m going to stick with my fraudulent expertise for one more week. And when they come back from their bye, I am not going to pick against Kansas City at home again this season.

Week 3 (and overall): David Roth: 6-10 (18-27-3); Al Toonie The Lucky Canadian Two-Dollar Coin: 10-6 (29-16-3)

Sunday, October 3
• New York Jets (-5.5) at Buffalo, 1pm – DR: New Jersey J; ATTLCTDC: Buffalo
• Detroit at Green Bay (-14.5), 1pm – DR: Green Bay; ATTLCTDC: Green Bay
• Baltimore at Pittsburgh (-1), 1pm – DR: Pittsburgh; ATTLCTDC: Pittsburgh
• Denver at Tennessee (-6.5), 1pm – DR: Tennessee; ATTLCTDC: Denver
• San Francisco at Atlanta (-7), 1pm – DR: Atlanta; ATTLCTDC: San Francisco
• Cincinnati (-3) at Cleveland, 1pm – DR: Cincinnati; ATTLCTDC: Cincinnati
• Carolina at New Orleans (-13.5), 1pm – DR: Carolina; ATTLCTDC: New Orleans
• Seattle (-1) at St. Louis, 1pm – DR: Seattle; ATTLCTDC: St. Louis
• Houston (-3) at Oakland, 4:05pm – DR: Houston; ATTLCTDC: Houston
• Indianapolis (-7) at Jacksonville, 4:05pm – DR: Indianapolis; ATTLCTDC: Jacksonville
• Washington at Philadelphia (-5.5), 4:15pm – DR: Philadelphia; ATTLCTDC: Philadelphia
• Arizona at San Diego (-8), 4:15pm – DR: San Diego; ATTLCTDC: Arizona
• Chicago at New York Giants (-4), 8:20pm – DR: Chicago; ATTLCTDC: New Jersey G

Monday, October 4
• New England (-1) at Miami, 8:30pm – DR: New England; ATTLCTDC: Miami



David Roth is a writer from New Jersey who lives in New York. He co-writes the Wall Street Journal’s Daily Fix, contributes to the sports blog Can’t Stop the Bleeding and has his own little website. His favorite Van Halen song is “Hot For Teacher.”