Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Ninth Level of Dante's Hell Is Reserved For Sanctimonious Sportswriters

I've been trying to avoid discussing the Michael Vick indictment because it seems too easy and everything's already been said, then some. But I just can't take it anymore. I've heard more sanctimonious, hyperbolic horseshit out of the sports media in the last few days than I have since, well, take your pick: the height of the Bonds grand jury, the Duke lacrosse case, the Kobe case (which I am loath to even mention since Ryan tried to bludgeon me with his Blackberry last time it came up), or even O.J.

This post could make a lot of different points. Off the top of my head:

I could talk about the role of race, which I do think is a factor in the coverage, but probably not in the investigation itself, and not nearly to the degree of the aforementioned issues.

We could discuss the hypocrisy involved in all this hand-wringing by meat eaters over dogs being electrocuted. (Please, somebody get all pissed and say, "but cows and chickens don't get electrocuted or hung or beaten." Pretty please. If you take this tack, your only real argument is, "but dogs are cute!" Unless you want to be one of those armchair animal psychiatrists who claims to understand the intelligence levels of all animals on a sliding scale, and further to construct an equation that derives the value of their pain from their relative intelligence.)

I could talk about the fact that the predominant response from the sports media thus far has been to moralize and bleat, rather than trying to figure out what other athletes might be involved: As ProFootballTalk pointed out (no way to link directly to the relevant section -- search the page for Dorsey Levens, about 1/6 of the way down as of this writing), maybe when ESPN had Dorsey Levens in the studio the other day, they should have asked him why his dog training company has Michael Vick's picture on its "Satisfied Celebs" page. Maybe they should have asked him if he attended dogfights. Maybe they should have asked him for more than his opinion on the matter, and maybe they would have, if they weren't busy pumping out opinion columns and asking everybody from Emmitt Smith to Vinny in North Jersey to give their opinion. Opinions first: they've got their priorities.

But I'd rather just focus on the sanctimony itself, because this has long been one of my primary complaints about mass sports media. I'm on vacation and have been trying to avoid the coverage of this issue as much as possible, but thus far I can remember hearing the following.

First it was Romy on the radio describing in grisly detail a scene involving Mike Vick slamming a dog on the ground repeatedly until it was dead. He proceeded it with a perfunctory "if it's true," the classic copout of opiners who need an excuse to sermonize: what always remains unspoken in these situations is the baseline assumption that it is, in fact, true. If they really allowed for the possibility that it wasn't true, then they'd have to shut their traps, and that wouldn't fill fifteen minutes of their show, or fifteen inches on the page. Never mind the fact that the indictment (available here) doesn't actually, technically, say that Michael Vick slammed a dog on the ground repeatedly until it was dead: saying it sure lights up the phone lines.

Then I heard some other radio hack essentially saying that it must be true, because the Feds don't take cases to court if they can't win. The Feds win something like 90 percent of their cases, he said. That's almost a definite. And, in horseshoes, hand grenades, and sports journalism, almost is enough.

I should pause here and acknowledge that the response has not been completely one-sided: the requisite chiding "wait and see" columns have sprung up as well. Screamin' A held up an open hand the other day. ESPN's coverage has been atypically muted, as exemplified in a worthy effort by Mike Sando (which also outlines how air-loose a grand jury indictment can be).

By and large, however, the response has been shrill and condemning. Vick's hometown paper even has a photo retrospective of his career posted on its website, as if he were dead. But maybe the single most flagrantly self-righteous piece of writing I've seen about Vick came from Philly's own Bill Conlin. I don't do the FJM bit often -- indeed, I've objected to it on this blog before -- but I'm going to do it here, because I've been itching to rip Conlin, and because I think his latest screed is an extreme example of the sanctimonious tendency I'm describing, as well as its most common and most bothersome undertones (I'll explain what those are later). I'll try not to take anything out of context or make any cheap shots, two tendencies of the form which I usually object to most.

NFL can't really let Vick play, can it?

SEE, HERE'S the thing with Michael Vick and the heinous crimes for which he has been indicted.

Right to Life activists have a history of blowing up abortion clinics and reaching "out-of- court" settlements with pro-choicers that, in some cases, involve extreme prejudice.

Two paragraphs in and already he's comparing killing dogs to killing people. I want to establish this right now, because the opposite belief is a major crux of a lot of the anti-Vick vitriol, and one Conlin (and others) rely on: killing dogs is not the same as killing humans. Human lives are more valuable than those of animals. As far as I'm concerned, that's a moral absolute, one I would hope I don't have to explain.

Remember this human/animal issue, because it arises later in interesting ways.

The animal-rights folks take similar umbrage to people who engage in the abuse or wanton slaughter of animals. They really, really get upset about the breeding of dogs for the sole purpose of mauling each other in a blood sport depicted as a deeply rooted and "traditional culture" form of entertainment.

Guilty or innocent, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback, massively marketed as the new breed of multitalented National Football League star, has become the face of an activity so vile that a long prison term is not punishment enough for those at the rotten core of dogfighting.

While I understand what he's trying to say here, the way he phrases this last paragraph reveals much of his agenda. First of all, "guilty or innocent" shouldn't be treated as a throwaway matter, as it is here. Second, I think calling him a "new breed of multitalented star" sounds suspiciously like something coded. And we all know dogfighting is vile and rotten. But amid all that rhetoric, all this sentence really says is that Michael Vick has become the face of dogfighting. If you separate what Conlin is saying from what he's suggesting, you realize that he's not saying very much, and he's saying it very carefully.

There should be a level of Hell in Dante's Inferno reserved for humans who aid and abet the unspeakable horrors that attend this barbaric "sport." It should be very close to the circle reserved for death-camp commandants and terrorists who blow themselves up in crowded public places.

This is hyperbole of the grossest kind. Dante? "Unspeakable horrors"? And are we seriously supposed to lump dogfighters in with death-camp commandants and suicide bombers? Is it necessary to invoke, even obliquely, the Holocaust and September 11th every time something bad happens? You're talking 11 million and 3,000-plus murdered people, respectively, and relating it to the killing of eight dogs. Let's take some responsibility for the words we write, to ensure that they continue to mean something: sentences like that cheapen the words inside, the ideas they represent, the author, and the paper they're printed in.

And don't tell me, "Lighten up, it's only a dog . . . " I'm more dog-tolerant than dog-loving, but this story and its ramifications transcend outrage even for somebody who has never wished the companionship of man's best friend.

So, the first thing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell should do is guarantee Michael Vick's safety. This fresh-faced voice of a long-overdue morality should assign 24-hour security to a man about to surpass Barry Bonds, O.J. Simpson and Pete Rose in the Hall of Infamy's jock wing. He should protect Vick from the reach of potential vigilante justice. It's going to take a few more news cycles for the full impact of this story to hit home. But it will hit harder than anything since O.J. was leading the Freeway Grand Prix in his white Bronco.

And the ridiculousness continues. Can we just stop here and consider the fact that this man just said Mike Vick is going to surpass O.J. Simpson in the "Hall of Infamy," whatever the fuck that is? He invokes the Juice twice! Just come out and say it, Bill: you think killing dogs is as bad as killing people.

You think I'm kidding? What this man is accused of doing - one count in the bill of indictment accuses Vick of supervising the multigrisly killings of eight dogs - is a grenade tossed at more than 70 million American dog owners.

I hope you're kidding, because it's not a grenade. In no way is Vick's indictment comparable to throwing a grenade at anybody. Just stop it.

Imagine if the Falcons had a game scheduled this season in Cleveland, against the Browns. With the sound system blaring "Who Let the Dogs Out." With all those hirsute crazies in their dog masks . . . It will be bad enough in stadiums where Rover is not the symbol of a team's tenacity and ferocity.

Except the Falcons don't play Cleveland this year, so your vivid little scene doesn't work. We might as well be imagining what would happen if the Falcons had to play the Canton Bulldogs. And does it really matter if the mascot is a dog? Would those fans take more umbrage at actual dogs being killed? I'm a psychotic Philly fan, but I don't recall ever tracking down and fighting any eagle poachers.

And that's why Michael Vick must never play again in an NFL uniform - until the indictment has run its legal course and he is acquitted by a jury. And try to imagine the jury-selection process if the quarterback's legal team fails to reach a satisfactory plea bargain: "Do you now own, or have you ever owned one or more dogs?"

Hey, there were people who supported the Vietnam war who wanted to impeach Lyndon Johnson when he was photographed holding up his beagle by the ears. I think a few million John Madden video games featuring Michael Vick just became the equivalent of your old eight-track tapes.

Hold on just a second: "Michael Vick must never play again in an NFL uniform -- until the indictment has run its legal course ..."? What does that mean? He should never play again in an NFL uniform for six months? A year? That's not never! So don't begin by making a statement like he should never play again and then immediately hedge it into nothingness. If you're going to say it, say it. Otherwise, don't.

There is already a Greek chorus of bleeding hearts calling for Vick to be allowed to continue overthrowing receivers and running around like a very fast rat in a maze until he has his day in court.

And here's where the human/animal confusion takes on some very obvious and very disturbing overtones. I'll only say this: no white quarterback would ever be described in a large national newspaper as a "very fast rat in a maze," regardless of what he did or which animal he allegedly electrocuted.

That due process-rooted sentiment confronts the unofficial national religion with a public-relations disaster of unprecedented scope.

Ah, yes, the unofficial national religion, that beacon known as the NFL. The sport more Americans watch than any other, in which men -- humans, not dogs -- hit each other so hard and so often that players' brains turn into sponges, until they retire and get put out to pasture for a meager pension. The electrocution of dogs is a stain on this religious institution.

I love the NFL as much as anybody I know, but let's not pretend it's a noble institution.

Goodell has been suspending the NFL's growing list of social misfits at a heartening rate. Vick's alleged involvement in caninecide should draw a suspension - for involvement in illegal gambling? - that carries beyond the legal resolution of the case. When a law-enforcement officer or teacher is accused of a crime, aren't they put on "administrative leave" pending an in-house investigation? Let the NFL investigation begin - but proceed slowly.

One of Franz Kafka's most chilling short stories is called "In the Penal Colony." It involves the use of an instrument of torture whereby the sentence imposed on a prisoner is carved into his body in an ornate script.

In the case of anybody guilty of involvement in the killing of dogs used for this illegal blood sport, a simple brand would suffice:

"Dog Killer." And make the letters big . . . *

He closes with a suggestion that Vick -- "if guilty," of course, only "if guilty," if not he takes it all back -- should be branded. Not jailed, not electrocuted or slammed on a floor -- not even eye for an eye -- but branded.

You know, like they do to animals. Like they did to slaves. So tell us, Bill Conlin: in your column, which is Vick, the (alleged) dog-killer, supposed to be?

11 comments:

ESPN said...

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Diesel said...

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Diesel said...

Pepe,

I have almost zero problems with what you wrote; that's a solid argument.

One thing I noticed about the Conlin piece that really jumped out at me is how much it sounds like he's inciting violence against Vick. (Snips on purpose)

Guilty or innocent ... a long prison term is not punishment enough for those at the rotten core of dogfighting.

So, the first thing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell should do is guarantee Michael Vick's safety. ... He should protect Vick from the reach of potential vigilante justice.

One of Franz Kafka's most chilling short stories is called "In the Penal Colony." It involves the use of an instrument of torture whereby the sentence imposed on a prisoner is carved into his body in an ornate script. In the case of anybody guilty of involvement in the killing of dogs used for this illegal blood sport, a simple brand would suffice: "Dog Killer." And make the letters big . . .


Last I checked, I hadn't heard any rumblings of "vigilante justice" being carried out on Vick. A lot of people are upset, and a lot of people hope he never plays in the NFL again. But nothing about him getting his skull kicked in, at least until Conlin's diatribe.

This is a trick Hearst used to use all the time: He'd write a story about how people "shouldn't" do something, or how there was "no proof" that something imaginary didn't happen, in an effort to plant the seed that there was a fire, not to mention smoke. More often than not, it's this kind of formalized violence-baiting that actually gets people hurt.

If I'm Vick's attorney, I'm calling the Enq and asking why they're allowing columnists to run thinly-veiled threats against his client.

taco-eater supreme said...

OK, I'll bite.

Besides being cute, it is more heinous to torture and kill a dog than it is to slaughter a cow or a chicken for several reasons:

First, dogs are higher on the human-relations totem pole due to the fact that they are useful for things other than nourishment. One can train a dog to be a bomb/drug detector, guide for the blind, or bodygaurd. Cows and chickens are much less trainable. I haven't seen any seeing-eye cocks, lately.

Second, it is pretty clear, for whatever reason, that one activity is legal, while the other is not. This depends on the context, I'm sure, but I don't believe that anyone is indicting Colonel Sanders or whatever burger purveyor that still serves real beef on livestock trafficking charges. Although various groups (like PETA, and the group that you linked to) are trying to expose the latent animal cruelty that occurs in such organizations, the humane slaughtering of animals bred for food can happen without the unnecessary abuse. If KFC and Tyson are guilty of mistreating livestock, then, by all means, hold their feet to the fire. It doesn't make what was allegedly done at Vick's house any less abhorrent, it only means that if steers are being slammed into the ground until dead, those responsible should face the same legal ramifications that Vick faces for doing the same to dogs.

Lastly, the intent behind the dog killing is different than the slaughter of livestock in that the chicken or cow or farm-raised shrimp (delicious!) is spawned, fed and terminated out of a necessity for nutrition. If you want to counter that by saying that meat is not vital to the human diet, fine. But Vick and his cohorts did not end the life of those dogs to feed people, he did so out of pure malice and is as fucked up as the assholes kicking the chickens.

Although it is true that the medias treatment of the situation has been largely blown out of proportion, I hope this does not mean that you are going to bat for Vick on this one. If this is not the case, ignore the rest of this comment and accept my apologies for the accusation. But if this is indeed your intent, I would like to remind anyone pondering this iconoclastic position to take the same advice that they dispense: If the situation turns out to be the opposite of what you currently assume (i.e he is totally guilty and is convicted on all charges), you will end up looking like a supreme cock. Suffice it to say that IF he is guilty (non-perfunctory 'if'), he is a douche and hopefully gets what he deserves. Sportwriters will do whatever is necessary to sell a page, and if that means going way too far on an article that deals with an issue that triggers such an emotional response, they will do it. Move to get rid of the article (or its influence), but don't use Conlin's almost criminal overstatement as grounds to defend Michael Vick, who is really not that good of a person to begin with.

- Big C

Anonymous said...

When did he defend Vick?

Pepe B. Secessionist said...

C-dogg:

To counter your seeing-eye dog take, cows make milk and chickens lay eggs. Even those rare service dogs -- and really, we're talking about maybe 1 out of every 1000 -- don't provide anything tangible. They don't do anything humans couldn't. We don't even need to kill most livestock in order for them to have a use; dogs require just as much upkeep as farm animals, with far less return. So I don't agree with the production/value argument as justification.

The legality issue is really ancillary to Conlin's (and by extension, most of the media's) argument, which is strident on moral grounds, not legal ones. He's not saying Vick should go to jail for what he does -- he's saying he should go to Hell for it. In other words, I don't think legality has any bearing on morality.

And you're right in anticipating my argument: I absolutely would counter that the slaughtering of cows and chickens is not necessary for human sustenance. It once was, but at this point, a good steak is something an American enjoys, not something he or she needs. And I really don't think enjoying the act of eating the flesh of an executed/electrocuted animal is fundamentally different from electrocuting an animal for enjoyment. In both cases the animals are used as vehicles for human pleasure or entertainment -- and the twenty grams of protein in the steak don't sway me much in terms of justification. I don't imagine that viewpoint will be very well received, because it contradicts societal norms, but morally speaking, I honestly don't see a significant difference between the two.

I still think the cuteness of animals is the primary factor in all of this dogfighting outrage, as well as in our evaluation of dogs' worth. Their usefulness is secondary. As I said before, dogs are not very useful compared to many other domesticated animals. (Although I'll admit that they certainly beat the shit out of cats.)

But the Vick question is the most interesting one. I'm not defending Michael Vick. He's given me no reason to. But I strenuously object to the treatment athletes -- and yes, it is primarily black athletes; there's really no denying that -- receive from the sports media when they're accused of something. Many, many sportswriters are using their forum for a purpose it was never intended to serve: they're elevating themselves to a false position in which they're entitled to pass judgment -- often moral judgment, but just as often legal judgment -- on people who have only been indicted. They do it self-righteously, ignoring the glaring fact that they have absolutely no qualifications or justification for doing so.

They're not legal experts. Most of the people I linked to don't know any more about the case than we do -- like us, they've read the indictment and listened to other media outlets discuss it.

And sportswriters as a group certainly have no grounds for acting as moral authorities. They're not exactly priests; they're just normal guys with fair-to-good writing abilities and a press pass. Yet they continue to play the social critic, over and over again. It seems to me a gross abuse of privilege, that privilege being the forum itself: they get to reach a whole lot of readers, and that privilege should come with more responsibility and less entitlement.

And now this is really off topic from your comment, but when this tendency seems, repeatedly, to manifest in the form of a massively white-male group of people (for all of its progress, sportswriting remains one of the whitest and malest professions I can think of) vilifying prominent black athletes, it really makes me wonder where it comes from.

Pepe B. said...

Oh, and Diesel, I hadn't thought about the inciting violence angle. Now that you mention it, it really does sound like he's condoning it.

Between that and the persistent animalizing/dehumanizing of Vick, it's really a pretty disturbing column.

So did you RSVP or should I?

Diesel said...

@ Big-C

I don't know about you, but I've always had a seeing-eye cock.

@ Pepe

It's unfortunate that so many of the most prominent, metro sports columnists are so careless with their platform, but I wouldn't go so far as to make some of the conclusions you have. But that's a full post in and of itself.

Big C said...

@ Pepe:

But....dogs are sooooo cute!

I hadn't considered the VORP (Value Over Replacement Pet) angle vis-a-vis the whole upkeep/production thing. I think my primary angst in this particular case simply boils down to the fact that I cannot fathom someone wantonly abusing an animal that has been such a beloved member of our household since I can remember. Forget what you heard, pits can be awesome family pets.

And, yes, dogs are much better than cats. Unless you are talking about the carne machaca at Filibertos, however, in which case the cat has much better flavor.

Anonymous said...

Pepe:

It seems to me there is a fundamental distinction between enjoying eating an electrocuted animal and enjoying electrocuting an animal. While one may not be more humane than the other in terms of the effect on the animal in question, taking enjoyment from killing a living thing is sadistic. It's the difference between enjoying the flavor and texture of the meat or getting off on knowing the thing was killed before you ate it. I leave it up to you to decide whether it makes sense to contradict this particular societal norm.

Pepe B. Secessionist said...

If you can eat a piece of meat and pretend that your enjoyment isn't also precipitated on the animal's death, then I suppose there's a distinction. But that's an awfully slippery slope to walk. Like you said, it doesn't make a difference to the animal whether you enjoy its death or not.