When is it OK to root against a personality on your favorite team? Do the rules of fandom dig this deep?
Michael Vick has been a New York Jet for almost a week, and rooting interests are starting to get just a little convoluted. The former Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons quarterback is well known for formerly running a dog-fighting ring out of his home.
So it leaves me asking, “Can someone remain a Jets fan and still not root for his potential starting quarterback?”
Someone has to have come up with a law for this, some sort of advice we could take. But there’s nothing. There isn’t a general standard for these sorts of situations. At some point, you just have to choose between your principles and football.
There’s a different breaking point there for everyone. After all, on anyone’s favorite NFL team, there’s probably someone who has broken the law in some way, shape or form. This is, after all, the NFL, a league plagued by players with legal issues.
In the mid-1980s, when David Stern took over as commissioner of the NBA, the league had serious disciplinary problems. Players were racking up criminal records that rivaled War and Peace in length, and the NBA’s reputation continued to suffer. The main culprit in most of those issues: cocaine. The NBA had a serious drug infestation, and it didn’t seem to be going away. That is, until Stern came in, realized that reputation was at stake, and implemented a newly strict drug policy.
Legal troubles started to go down. Stern cleaned up the league. But, somehow, almost 30 years later, that troubled reputation still comes up at times today. Maybe now, those comments come in the form of Minnesota representative Pat Garofalo saying something outlandishly racist. But they still happen.
We may make jokes, quick quips about the NFL’s inability to keep its players in front of bars, but it doesn’t affect the way we watch the games. We still tune in every Sunday. We still wear our team’s colors, chug Bud Lights at tailgates and indirectly teach nine-year-old kids their first curse words. And we don’t bother to draw a line detailing for whom we should or should not root.
A few years back, the Jets signed Plaxico Burress, who had some legal issues of his own. Burress served almost two years in prison for weapon-possession charges. As a life-long Jets fan, did I like Burress? Not particularly. He seemed standoffish, maybe a little full of himself. He definitely wasn’t anyone I cared to go to dinner with to talk about the most recent episode of “Family Guy.” We probably weren’t two peas in a pod.
But I still rooted for Burress. He was a Jet. I never thought twice about it. That’s just the culture of being a fan. You unconditionally root for the jersey at all costs.
But what if someone wearing the jersey has done unspeakable things? What if it’s someone like Michael Vick?
I’m not one of those people who thinks Vick should still be in jail. Actually, Vick probably served too much time, spending 21 months in prison after his involvement in dog fighting. That length may have had as much to do with a judge making an example of him as anything else. But those who root for Vick often justify it by saying, “He’s served his time! What more do you want?”
That’s not the point.
Vick doesn’t deserve more jail time. He shouldn’t be exiled from society, living with the lepers somewhere at the top of a sequestered hill. But now that he’s one of the most talented quarterbacks to join the team I’ve rooted for my whole life, the ambivalence is rising.
Vick has paid his dues. Publicly, he’s done everything he possibly could to make amends with every person he disgusted in the past.
Speaking out against dog fighting. Standing up for animal rights. Doing any sort of charity work that can make him look good. It’s all there. It’s all part of the expected blueprint. But even if Vick is being as honest as he can possibly be, does that fully matter?
Vick didn’t just set up dogs to fight. He ordered their executions.
Electrocution. Hanging. Beatings.
That’s not the work of a bad guy. It’s not what a typical sick person might do. They’re psychopathic actions, moves that even criminals may think are too awful to commit. Whether Vick qualifies as a psychopath, I don’t know. That’s a medical term, something a doctor would have to diagnose. But those thoughts don’t just go away because you’ve been locked in a cell. Maybe the actions do. Maybe you understand the consequences more. But a desire to kill and torture in the most gruesome ways possible isn’t something that naturally pops into anyone’s head. It takes someone far more disordered to pull off any of what Vick did.
The actions have changed, and the public perception has with it. Vick doesn’t deserve to serve anymore time, but does that mean we, as Jets fans, have to like him? Do we have to root for him? And if we don’t, does that mean we’re not quite as big Jets fans as we once thought we were?
There’s got to be a line somewhere. It all just depends on where you choose to draw it. No one would ever root for Aaron Hernandez again. Yet, fans and the NFL alike have glorified Ray Lewis to no end over the past 14 years.
And therein lies the issue. We don’t know where that line is hiding. No one ever taught us this. The NFL never prepared us for this. And now, even five years later, someone who has never owned a dog, never wanted to have one (and has never even really liked dogs, honestly) is stuck here questioning if it’s kosher to root for his favorite team’s potential starting quarterback.
Vick may have a great year, and if he does, it’ll be nearly impossible not to cheer along. Which doesn’t make his actions any less deplorable. It doesn’t make these sorts of mixed feelings less valid. It just makes all of them easier to forget. And ultimately, that’s really the only way Vick can get back into someone’s good graces. Even after half a decade of dealing with life after incarceration, he has to make people forget.