Eagles fans scramble to pass on Vick's past

Posted: November 26, 2010

To think, being an Eagles fan used to require little more than the ability to spell E-A-G-L-E-S.

Now, you have to grapple with the big stuff.

It's one thing for a fan to take a stand - pro-Vick, anti-Vick, don't care about Vick - when the quarterback with the controversial dog-torturing past is pacing the sidelines as a backup.

But with Michael Vick's recent otherworldly success, and, dare we say, with the Super Bowl no longer a wild fantasy, the Vick conundrum is as twisted a thicket as ever.

So complicated that philosophy professors, ethicists, psychologists, and theologians everywhere are weighing in on the new Vick experience. It's even made its way into the classroom as a case study.

The fan conundrum has become the city's own morality play, raising mind-bending questions about redemption, human potential and purpose, forgiveness, and pain.

(Or, as one tweeter put it this week: "Super huge shout out to any Philadelphia Eagles fan that turned in their season tickets to protest Michael Vick and is now kissing his -!!")

Well, being an Eagles fan is more complicated for some people than others.

For the extra point, you get the question of relative value - that of humans vs. dogs vs. chickens vs. entertainment vs. character vs. talent vs. what many long-suffering Eagles fans would still hold true as the ultimate goal: a Super Bowl victory.

To talk with and read the writings of various philosophy professors, ethics experts, and religious thinkers - a surprisingly ample body of work on Vick exists - you get a lot of deep thoughts, none of them having to do with x's and o's.

"If you take the view that what he did was unforgivable, an abomination - you don't want to see him, he reminds you what he did to the dogs - [then] you might feel betrayed. That's grounds for breaking with the team," said Princeton University philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer, who has written extensively about animal cruelty and bioethics.

Singer surprised many when he took a forgiving view of Vick, who served 19 months in federal prison after pleading guilty in 2007 to running a dogfighting ring, which involved electrocuting and hanging underperforming dogs. When the Eagles signed Vick, Singer wrote on his Twitter feed: "If you eat factory-farmed chicken, eggs, pork or veal, you're in no position to be outraged by the Eagles signing him."

Singer believes that Vick, having paid his penalty, can be reasonably and morally embraced by fans in his redemptive quest for the beauty of his fulfilling his potential on the field.

Fans may feel ambivalent about that, especially now that their penalty for opposing Vick's signing - opting out of rooting for a beloved team now having huge success - seems pretty stiff.

Everett Worthington, a psychology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, frames the issue as one of trust.

"When I counseled couples who experienced an affair, the erring partner always seemed to believe he or she had done enough to earn back trust, but the offended partner seemed never sure whether enough was enough," he wrote on the Science and Religion Today website. "I usually coached them to set a definite time as a probationary period.

"In many ways, the public is in the same boat regarding Michael Vick," he continued. "What penalty is enough? What time period is enough? We each need to decide that for ourselves, but we also, in fairness, have to allow a person to make redemption for errors - even the most grievous of errors."

It helps to see Vick's actions in context, Singer said, both in Vick's own background (where dogfighting was common) and in the violent nature of football itself (made plain by teammate DeSean Jackson's comment after the Washington game that the team came out "like pit bulls ready to get out of the cage.")

"It's an aggressive culture," Singer said. "You go out there on the field, depending on your role, you're going to hit people. Probably, the difficult thing is to be tough on the football field and be not tough off it.

"I don't think fans in Philadelphia have to feel guilty about how he did something bad before. He's showing character, getting himself out of the terrible hole he dug for himself. You can appreciate the success."

That thinking probably would not hold sway with Francis Battista, cofounder of the Best Friends Animal Society, which rescued 22 of Vick's 48 dogs and is still waiting for Vick to ask how his canine victims are doing. (Not so good, they say.)

"Despite the fact that America is routinely described as a nation of animal lovers, concern for the lives and well-being of those animals doesn't yet compete with the desire to be entertained," Battista wrote in a post, "Michael Vick and the Value Proposition." "That's a problem."

From a theological perspective, said John Mark Reynolds, professor of philosophy at Biola University, a Christian school: "What Vick did was wrong, but it is not so obviously wrong that his practices have been universally condemned in all places at all times."

Citing C.S. Lewis' book The Problem of Pain, Reynolds wrote: "Centuries of reflection on animal pain and what inflicting it does to people led many Christians (in particular) and some secular thinkers to begin pressing for animal-cruelty laws in the 19th century."

Noting that "deadbeat dads, drunk drivers, drug abusers, and wife beaters still play" in the NFL, Reynolds wrote: "Michael Vick did a bad thing, but it is not so bad as other things. We need not develop a false moral equivalency to condemn him."

Christian philosopher Denny Burk, dean of Boyce College, takes up the moral-relativism front.

"Why is it in our culture that there is almost universal disgust at Michael Vick's dog-killing, but at best only ambivalence toward the nearly 50 million unborn human babies that have been cruelly and legally killed in America since 1973?" wrote Burk, a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Jonathan Walton, a professor at Harvard University's Divinity School, defended Vick's reinstatement as ethical and raised the issue of celebrity and class. "Would there be this sort of outrage if Vick was returning to work as a carpenter? A janitor? A groundskeeper at Lambeau field?" Walton wrote. "I think not."

Joan G. Florry, a philosophy professor at Vanderbilt University who teaches sports ethics, devoted a recent class to Vick. She said the key was not combining two issues: Vick and the dogs and Vick and the Eagles.

"I think rooting for a good athletic performance is not necessarily support for the morally reprehensible actions he committed," she said. "I think the problem is we conflate the two."

Well, easy enough for the academics to say. Not as easy for the hard-core fan, like the ones at 700level.com, who agonized back and forth after the Redskins game about how much their "feelings have changed . . . now that he has become this incredible story of redemption."

"It was easy to hate him when he looked washed up and out of shape last year," one wrote on a lengthy thread about whether Vick's success justified a new view of his redemption. Not so this year.

"Still have a very hard time rooting for him," said another fan, SeeZakRun. "I want them to win, but I don't care if they lose, which is a position I've never really been in regarding the Eagles."

At the very least, noted another fan, "It's taken some of the joy out of it."

Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681 or arosenberg@phillynews.com.

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