I don't believe Michael Vick. In fact, while watching his 60 Minutes interview on Sunday, I pretty much thought he was full of it. But I also have no problem with his being allowed to return to the NFL, where he will no doubt juke plenty of tacklers and throw just as many inaccurate passes at the feet of his receivers. That may seem contradictory -- not buying his mea culpas and yet not objecting to his reinstatement -- but that's because the real issue is not what Vick gave us on Sunday night, it's what we expected from him.
I don't sense real remorse from Vick, but then, I'm not looking for it, at least not yet. True regret, complete understanding of how reprehensible his torture and murder of dozens of dogs was, is probably a long way off for him. The darkness in his soul that allowed him to take part in such brutality was no doubt years in the making and will take years to undo. Enlightenment doesn't happen overnight, with the first clank of the prison cell, as he tried to make us believe in the 60 Minutes sitdown with James Brown.
That's why, when Vick told Brown that he now understands why what he did was wrong and that he's sickened and disgusted by his own actions, I don't believe him, not completely. I think what he really means is not that he understands how depraved his actions were, but that he understands how depraved the rest of us think his actions were. He now realizes that to most of society, sadism directed at animals is no more acceptable than sadism directed against humans. Not quite the epiphany that we want to see, perhaps, but it's all that we can realistically expect at this point.
If Vick were totally honest, if he were to speak with out his attorneys and public relations experts whispering in his ear, he might have told Brown something like this: "I knew that what I was doing was a crime, but I didn't think people would be this outraged by it. If I've learned anything from this, it's that maybe there's something wrong with me, that this willingness to inflict suffering on living things is really abnormal. I need to work on that, with professional help. It still doesn't seem as disgusting to me as it does to everyone else, but I get this much -- if I want to be a free man, not to mention an NFL quarterback, I need to make sure I never harm another hair on an animal's head. I can do that, and I will do that."
Would that have been enough to convince commissioner Roger Goodell to fully reinstate him? Would it have been enough to keep some of the protesters at bay? Maybe, maybe not. But it would have been more honest than most of what he said on 60 Minutes.
The other half of the equation -- the issue of Vick's reinstatement to the NFL and his subsequent signing with the Philadelphia Eagles, is simpler. There was no good reason -- and by good I mean logical, rational and fair -- to ban him permanently from the league. Vick's crimes, however heinous, had nothing to do with football, and absent any indication that he would further embarrass the NFL by returning to the despicable business of dogfighting, he deserved the chance to resume his career just like any other ex-con would, assuming there was a team that wanted his services.
Goodell got it right, suspending Vick for part of the season as a punishment for the negative attention he brought to the league, but not banning him permanently. The commissioner basically let the marketplace decide whether Vick would play in the NFL again, which is the way it's supposed to work in America. If there was a team that felt Vick would be enough of an asset to make it worth the backlash and media distractions that would inevitably come with him, then so be it. If no team had felt Vick was a good enough player to be worth the trouble, that would have been fine, too.
Either Vick is allowed to rejoin society and pursue any line of work not related to his crimes, or he's not. We the public don't get to pick and choose which occupations are open to him. We don't get to decide that the life of a professional athlete is too glamorous, too pleasurable for Vick to enjoy. If he still has marketable skills as a football player, that's something we'll just have to live with. We don't have to watch him, we certainly don't have to root for him, but we don't have the right to stop him.
But can we demand remorse? We can, but we would be foolish to really expect it, at least not the kind of full understanding of and regret for his crimes that so many, including Goodell and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, seem to be looking for. Vick is trying to give it to us, trying to say all the things we want to hear, which is why his performance on 60 Minutes was largely disingenuous. He was a man desperately trying to convey an emotion that he isn't capable of feeling yet.
But I don't blame Vick for trying to tell us what we wanted to hear on Sunday night. There is apparently one thing he really did figure out during his prison stretch -- the truth won't set him free.