Arts & Culture

Michael Vick’s Demise Versus Tom Brady’s Free Pass

Does Race Determine the Volume of Negative Press when Athletes Misbehave? While reading the Times yesterday, I saw numerous articles about Michael Vick, who had just pleaded guilty to dog fighting charges as a necessary measure in his goal to … Read More

By / December 8, 2008

Does Race Determine the Volume of Negative Press when Athletes Misbehave?

While reading the Times yesterday, I saw numerous articles about Michael Vick, who had just pleaded guilty to dog fighting charges as a necessary measure in his goal to get back to the NFL.

I am an animal lover with a dog-breeding grandmother, an aunt who has a horse farm and another aunt with a dog kennel, so, like many others, I wanted the NFL and the powers-that-be to make an example of Vick for condoning, and profiting from animal abuse. Now, I’m having second thoughts.

The fact that I mainly follow baseball and the fact there are plenty of blacks in the NFL allowed me to overlook the underrepresentation of black quarterbacks until it was pointed out in one of the Times articles. The article, which highlights how Vick’s race versus Matt Ryan’s race affects the Atlanta fan base, turned me onto the reality that Vick is a meaningful loss to his predominantly black Atlanta fans, despite his well-above-adequate replacement and indisputable indiscretions.

I am a Boston College alumnus and am perfectly proud of Matt Ryan’s achievements. Maybe I should start pretending to be related to him instead of Nolan Ryan. However, Michael Vick’s demise brings about concerns over racial double standards in sports.

Michael Vick was not just that "random big black guy" on the defensive line. He was the star quarterback and an icon. A rising star and an exception to the norm of pretty white faces like Eli Manning and Tom Brady representing the most visible position. It seems that, besides Donovan McNabb, black football players haven’t had as much access to the positive exposure and coveted endorsements that come with the territory of QB. Peyton Manning’s countless commercials are always wordy. Advertisers seem to think audiences value Manning’s opinions and feedback about a product, while they might rather watch blacks running in their Nikes and chugging their Sprites in silence than actually be told by those blacks to buy the brands.

Vick, like many other athletes, has jeopardized his status as a role model by getting caught misbehaving. Despite the symbolic progress in race relations resulting from Obama’s victory, white audiences remain more receptive to the self-destruction of a black celebrity than a white one. I’d even venture to say some of us take a sick pleasure in it, whether explicitly or subconsciously.

I don’t even want to know what Bill O’Reilly would have to say about Vick’s desperation to get back in the NFL, as he loves to highlight every way black celebrities perpetuate negative stereotypes. On top of sicking pit bulls on each other, Vick has apparently squandered his historically lucrative contract earnings, thus making himself a convenient example of blacks mismanaging "new money."

Tom Brady’s scandalous personal life made headlines a while back when he ditched pregnant Bridget Moynihan for supermodel Gisele Bundchen. Granted, his case is completely different than Vick’s, but while I was living in working-class Irish (albeit gentrifying) neighborhood of South Boston last year, I got in many an argument with white Brady fans over the fact that I felt Brady got off easy for his antics thanks in large part to his race.

I was annoyed that Brady acted entitled to ditch his responsibilities as a father and embarrass the mother of his child, as well as the child himself. It wasn’t just the minimal negative press but the fact the Southie locals wouldn’t admit he was guilty of anything that bugged me. One annoying guy kept repeating, "As long as he keeps throwing those touchdown passes, he can do whatever he wants." Well, he’s not throwing any touchdown passes these last few months, and he’s still doing whatever he wants.

There is also the mentality that Tom Brady, in acting the way he did, proved himself the ultimate man; who else can dream of being one of the top quarterbacks in the country, GQ model material, and ditching a gorgeous 8 or 9 girl for a perfect 10? Had a black athlete done the same, I can’t help thinking he would be perceived as promiscuous, selfish and irresponsible.

The same Southie guys who loved to harp on the fact that Tom Brady can do whatever he wants were all more than willing to criticize black NBA players for their reputation of having children out of wedlock. Yet Brady’s case is treated like a get-out-of-jail-free pass cause he’s a pretty boy who’s banging Gisele. His baby doesn’t even have his last name, but Moynihan’s, and the poor boy is going to have to grow up knowing his father, America’s sweetheart, abandoned him and would rather write child support checks than teach him to toss the pigskin himself.

Despite the fact I am a white BC grad from a Boston Irish family who should be a gung-ho Tom Brady and Matt Ryan fan, I feel sorry for Vick and his fans. Atlanta’s largely black fan base misses him, although Ryan is winning many people over down there. Many white fans overlook race to the extent they are happy to let black players strengthen teams like the Pats and Celtics, but racism is ever-present. Worse, I have heard many white fans support the theory that the large proportion of black athletes is due to their being historically "bred" for strength, like animals.

I would be wrong to imply that any white athlete would get away with it, and any black athlete would be punished to the fullest extent possible. As a black friend pointed out, would Michael Jordan receive the same treatment as Vick? And of course, there’s OJ and Michael Jackson.

I am curious what would happen if Eli and Peyton Manning’s family were involved in a similar scandal. I can already see the general public making excuses for them and lamenting that, were they to be punished, the entire dynamic of the NFL would be compromised. The Manning family is perceived as the ultimate slice of wholesome All-American apple pie and considering they are hicks from Tennessee, I bet they go hunting, killing animals more directly than Vick killed dogs.

The general public eats up stories of blacks shooting themselves in the foot, both literally and figuratively, in the same way they eat up disproportionate coverage of blonde white girls getting kidnapped. As the more recent story of the Giants’ Plaxico Burress carelessly shooting himself in the leg exemplifies, we have more of an appetite to read about the negative behavior of black athletes over white, particularly when they fuel stereotypes like misogyny, reckless spending and violence.