You don’t have to forgive Michael Vick for dogfighting, but ESPN wants you to understand the context.
“Vick,” a two-part “30 for 30” documentary set to air Thursday with the second half premiering the following Thursday, takes a deep dive into the factors that surrounded the former NFL quarterback’s midcareer imprisonment, including race, poverty and sudden stardom and wealth. Among the complexities of his saga are the differing ways communities reacted to his arrest and lengthy sentence, and what to make of his football legacy.
Perhaps the biggest question, though, was raised by the documentary’s director, Stanley Nelson, in a phone interview Wednesday with The Post: “How does something that so many of us see as horribly cruel and torturous, how does anybody not see that?”
“And how, to some people, does this seem like something that’s not wrong?” Nelson added. “So we wanted to examine that.”
Unlike the recent Netflix series on former NFL star Aaron Hernandez, whose tale bears some similarities with Vick’s — including a degree of misfortune in being drafted by teams located too close to their old stomping grounds for their own good — the latter is alive to offer his take on what happened.
“I was really, really competitive, and I loved dogs,” he says in the documentary, “and somehow, some way, that got intertwined, and I never got away from it, never walked away from it.”
The “I loved dogs” line could have some viewers rewinding to make sure they heard it correctly, but Vick says it more than once, as do a pair of childhood friends and cohorts in Bad Newz Kennels, a dogfighting operation that ran from 2002 until their arrests in 2007. In fact, their initial interest was in simply breeding dogs “for the look,” as Quanis Phillips, who also went to prison, claims on camera.
“Vick” suggests that at least part of the answer may lie in the culture of Newport News, Va., where the future Atlanta Falcons superstar grew up in the projects as the son of a teenage mother, and the environs of a city whose nickname inspired the operation’s “Bad Newz” moniker.
“You know, the feeling of, was it right or wrong, never really existed,” Vick says in the documentary of his mind-set while bankrolling the kennel. “Just being candid, because I’d seen it so much, and I ain’t never seen anyone be condemned for doing this, and I’ve seen them doing it in the open."
The local prosecutor in Surry County, Va., where Vick ran his dogfighting ring at a rural compound across the James River from Newport News, certainly didn’t appear to think it was a big deal. “Probably, there won’t be anything [in terms of charges] related to this case,” Commonwealth attorney Gerald Poindexter is seen telling a news crew in 2007.
“I would think that the majority of people involved in dogfighting do not see it as cruel, and probably feel like they have a great fondness for dogs,” Nelson said. “Obviously, for most of us, that’s misdirected, and in some ways, for a lot of people, it’s not understandable. But I do think that a lot of people involved in dogfighting aren’t thinking, ‘Oh, let me be cruel to these dogs.’ Somehow, within their cultural framework, this is something that is not cruel to animals.”
U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson didn’t see it that way, as he handed Vick a 23-month sentence and chided him for “promoting, funding and facilitating this cruel and inhumane sporting activity.”
That was longer than the 12-to-18-month sentence recommended by prosecutors. One of them, assistant U.S. attorney Mike Gill, says in the documentary that sentences at the time for dogfighting-related offenses usually ran from zero to six months, and that Vick could conceivably have been given probation.
In footage of demonstrations staged during his trial, it is noticeable that the anti-Vick protesters were mostly white while the pro-Vick contingents were composed largely of black fans.
After the sentencing, comedian Steve Harvey is shown telling an audience, “Hold up. You’re trying to tell me a man got to go to jail that long for killing some dogs? Let me share something with you: Sean Bell got killed in New York City by three police officers. Kill a black man, everybody goes home. You kill a dog, and your a-- got to got to jail. Now, something is wrong with this right here.”
“What I really want to say: man, [expletive] them dogs,” Harvey exclaims as the audience rises to cheer. “Let his a-- play!”
“His sentence didn’t fit the crime. If you break it down, it’s about a dog,” another Vick supporter, also black, is shown saying at the time. “Yes, he was wrong, he should pay the price, but I don’t think 23 months should have been the sentence.”
“I don’t want to say that African Americans don’t love dogs as much as white folks — I’m not going to say that,” Nelson told The Post. “We spent a lot of time thinking about that and talking about that. I don’t think that’s the case.
“I think it’s more about the punishment that you get, given the injustice of the criminal justice system that we see over and over and over again, maybe this was a little bit harsh. Nobody that we were able to find had ever gone to jail for that long for fighting dogs. This was above and beyond. This man spent 23 months of his life in prison and went bankrupt, and still people are collecting hundreds of thousands of signatures.
“For black people, we don’t see hundreds of thousands of signatures collected from those same people when a black man loses his life or a black woman loses her life, and it’s captured on a cellphone, and the cops walk away free,” the 68-year-old documentarian continued. “We don’t see that kind of outrage. So when we see white folks, 10 years later, protesting, we’re like, ‘Well, wait a minute. What’s wrong with this picture?’
“I think that’s the different lens that this thing can be looked at through, and that’s what’s important.”
Asked whether he thought a white NFL star would have received the same sentence under those circumstances, Nelson pointed to a scene featuring comments from Dan Shannon, a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals who was involved with keeping a spotlight on Vick’s misdeeds during the trial.
“I remember people talking about ‘Death penalty for Vick,’ which obviously is not anything we were interested in, way beyond the pale,” says Shannon, who is white. “I don’t think they would have been saying those kinds of things if it had been Peyton Manning, as opposed to Michael Vick.”
“I’m not sure if we can say the judge would have looked at it differently, but some of the vile things that people were saying, such as ‘neuter Michael Vick’ and that ‘Michael Vick should be hung,’ you know, those have a very racial undertone to them, given the history of this country,” said Nelson. “And one of the things that happened is that in some ways, the reaction, especially to the sentencing, started to break down in terms of racial lines. I think for many African Americans, they saw it as a criminal justice issue.
“This was another black man getting an incredibly harsh sentence, and incredibly harsh rhetoric from the largely white crowds wherever Michael went, calling for punishment that was above and beyond the crime.”
As reflected recently by petitions against Vick serving as an honorary captain in the Pro Bowl last week, more than a decade after his release from prison, there are plenty of dog lovers who feel that the former quarterback is still not worthy of forgiveness. “For certain people,” Nelson said, “there’s nothing that Mike Vick can do to be rehabilitated.”
“And those people have a right to their opinion,” Nelson added. “But I do feel that, if you step back and look at it, Michael Vick has done everything that he possibly could to redeem himself, that he sees what he did as wrong and cruel, and has spoken out, spoken before Congress and done everything he can to try to make sure that nobody else does this.”
Ultimately, between his continued notoriety for running a dogfighting ring, plus the facts that he was never able to get the Falcons to a Super Bowl and couldn’t stay healthy during an otherwise impressive post-prison stint with the Philadelphia Eagles, Vick has had reason to look back at his football career with any number of regrets.
As highlighted toward the end of the documentary, though, the past couple of NFL seasons have featured the exhilarating emergence of multifaceted black quarterbacks such as Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson. That, in turn, has given Vick a source of pride in knowing he blazed a trail.
“When I think about the younger generation of quarterbacks that’s playing in the league right now,” Vick says in the documentary, “it’s like the way I ran around made them dream and made them want to emulate that. It’s like, ‘Man, I did something right.’”
In terms of how viewers might look back on his two-part series for ESPN, Nelson said, “I wasn’t making this film to, in any way, change people’s minds about Vick. On the other hand, it’s hard, so many times, not to be sympathetic when you know somebody’s story. And that’s just the truth of life. Unless somebody is evil incarnate, you know, when you learn people’s stories, you tend to kind of cut them some slack.
“Whether people will do that for Mike or not, I’m not sure that it matters to me. We felt that it was a fascinating story, with so many ins and outs, and ups and downs, that it was a story we felt should be told.”