Sunday, July 29, 2007

Falcons' Vick bites hand that feeds him

John Kass

NFL star quarterback Michael Vick of the Atlanta Falcons already stands convicted in the public mind of dogfighting, of which he's been indicted but not tried.

And as a football fan, I suppose I've convicted him too. I love dogs. I've raised them and trained them and they'll do anything for you, hunt on hard snow in the cold, and swim rivers to retrieve a bird that plops on a far bank. They'll run all day with a bell collar in the tall corn and be a loyal friend.

Certainly, bird dogs are not fighting dogs, but they're dogs; the difference between the breeds is almost like the difference between a wide receiver and a free safety. Not that I'm saying humans are dogs, or dogs are human.

There are other cruelties, certainly, but dogfighting is one of the cruelest.

Young vital animals selected for talent, for their desire to fight through pain, trained to physical perfection, only to be set on each other so they can tear each other to bits. And why?

So that men without half the guts of the dogs in the fighting ring can bet on who wins, who loses, cheering and yelling and drinking, full of blood lust, reaching out their hands for the money their dogs have won for them.

The dogs are ruined, if they're not killed, or electrocuted or shot, as has been alleged in the Vick case. And if they live, there's no pension for fighting dog retirees. Instead, there's a hole for them out back in the weeds.

And when the dogs are ruined -- they don't stay alive for 3.5 years, about the average career of an NFL player -- the owners then find other dogs that can fight.

There are always new dogs thrown into the ring, and the owners bet and cheer and yell some more, thrilled as the dogs project thousands of pounds of pressure on the bones of their rivals, and after the bone is crunched, it's reasonable to assume the owners might take a break, and have a cold beer, or a maybe even chips and dip, before getting back to the action.

What can be crueler than that?

So there will be a trial, but in some ways that's a formality. In the minds of most fans and in the minds of corporate suits that pay for TV commercial time during pro football games, Vick, the owner of "Bad Newz Kennels," is already guilty and what's worse in their minds, he's bad for NFL business.

The NFL has survived murder trials involving its star athletes, and once the trials are over and a respectful distance put between the silent dead and the living star, the publicity machine gears up and the star is immortalized in video games and all is forgotten. But humans are not dogs, and the NFL won't abide cruelty to animals.

The National Football League is a multibillion dollar enterprise that once sold mostly beer and tires on its commercials, but now sells beer and Viagra and miracle pharmaceuticals for enlarged prostates and insurance plans. And though the product adapts to the aging market, torturing dogs is not on the menu.

Vick's indictment comes as the league opens training camps across the country, and the sports media have flocked to the camps to advertise the NFL's treats to come. We'll marvel at the violence about to be unleashed on the fields for our enjoyment, all those young bones to be torn and crushed on Sundays after church, right after the players say the Lord's Prayer in the locker room before rushing out to snap some sinews.

But those are human sinews, human bones, not dog sinews, not dog bones. Dogs have no free will. And humans do, although how much free will is conditioned out of football players is a subject best left to sports psychiatrists and other experts.

And Vick? He's now the thug with gold chains, he's "Bad Newz," a living stereotype in the way of all that NFL commerce.

Even the "z" in "Newz" fixes him, like some insect on a pin on the hip-hop culture board. Though he's not been indicted for bad spelling, it marks him and puts him on the wrong side of things, the NFL's right side being well spoken athletes in blazers, slacks and ties helping little children build playgrounds and hospitals with stirring music in the background of their United Way commercials.

Linebackers and Aaron Copland just go together, don't they?

Spelling "Newz" his way prepares Vick like some exhibit, to rest in some future museum collection of hip-hop culture, which will also be on trial, if not in court, than as an accessory in the public mind.

It's the culture in which women are degraded and powerless young black men express their dreamz of power, often with snarling pit bulls on heavy chains in the music videos, so that white suburban girls and boys can plug into an iPod, chanting the words of urban angst silently in the back of mommy's van on the way to soccer practice after school, enriching music executives beyond imagining.

All this will play out as Vick's trial approaches, and so will the NFL season, and millions of Americans who care nothing about anthropology will read the injury reports on Thursdays and bet accordingly.

And as America bets, the athletes will prepare for the games, and visit the doctor and have their knees scraped out, and call each other on the phone, and say, "What up, dog?"


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