After Kobe Bryant laid 81 points on the Toronto Raptors in January 2006, the second highest single-game total in NBA history, I wrote a story about it. That was followed by a few dozen e-mails of the why-are-you-glorifying-a-guy-like-that? variety -- the 2003 Colorado rape charges against Bryant had been dismissed by then but many people never forgave him -- and an appearance on CNN's Reliable Sources on which I was asked the same question by host Howie Kurtz.
I recall this now as I watch the coverage of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, who -- let's not pretend otherwise -- has been the best player in the NFL this season. Reams of copy have detailed Vick's peerless performances and plenty has been written by those who are incensed that a one-time torturer of dogs has been elevated to heroic status.
It is, I submit, a classic conundrum, which means that my following list of ... well, I'm not sure what they are -- rules? suggestions? principles? realities? -- won't come close to solving the how-to-cover Vick dilemma, particularly if he takes the Eagles all the way to Texas Stadium on Feb. 6.
But here they are anyway:
• Pro sports are blanket-covered on such a daily basis that athletes, particularly high-performing athletes such as Vick, will by definition dominate the news. That creates an understandable I'm-sick-of-this-guy attitude among those who find Vick's behavior irredeemable.
• So what can be done about it? Nothing. When an athlete accomplishes something extraordinary on the field, it is the job of a journalist on the beat to write about it without harping on the past. The daily journalist can't begin every Eagles story with: "Michael Vick, who did jail time for killing dogs, scored two touchdowns and passed for ...". That is tiresome, unnecessary and unfaithful to the principles of news coverage. During the Clinton presidency, a White House reporter could not be charged with writing a daily lead that read: "President Bill Clinton, who was impeached by the House of Representatives for an Oval Office dalliance with an intern, today signed into law a bill ..."
That reality will never satisfy a public figure's dedicated enemies, who want the dirt dredged up with every story. But it's just the way it has to be -- and should be -- in daily journalism.
• However, the journalist must take care -- extra care -- that the athlete's heroism on the field is not conflated with sainthood off the field. That should always be the case, of course, but particularly with an athlete like Vick, who was, after all, torturing animals not so long ago.
I've seen this scenario evolve before with an athlete whose image needs rehabilitation. He starts to play well. He's happy. The team is happy. The athlete starts to open up and reporters start thinking, Hey, what a terrific guy! Why he's nothing like what we heard. All that and he's playing great!
Gradually, that attitude starts to worm its way into daily coverage. Great guy. Misunderstood guy. It's already happened with Vick, who may be a better person than he was three years ago (the jury is still out on that) but not because he has a quarterback rating of 103.6.
• Though the daily coverage must emphasize current games and not personal history, latitude must be given on the sports pages to show the other side. After a good game early in Vick's tenure as the Eagles' starting quarterback, a few stories appeared that contrasted Vick's good fortune with the travails of some of his tortured dogs. Those stories drew criticism, but in my opinion they were entirely justified. I'm not suggesting that every time Vick throws a touchdown pass or makes a miraculous scramble we need a concomitant mention of his dogs. But the dog story is part of the Vick landscape because he made it so.
• It should be the same rules for talk radio. From time to time I catch the goings-on at WIP, Philadelphia's top sports-talk radio station, where one of the morning people, Rhea Hughes, acknowledges that she just can't stand Vick, no matter how remarkably he plays. She doesn't chime in with that opinion every time his name is mentioned, which is often. But when called upon, she makes it clear that she is not drinking the Vick Kool-Aid. No one should have a problem with that. Again, it's the landscape.
• In short, the Vick story has to play out over time. It's his first season in the glaring spotlight -- he was a poorly utilized wildcat-back nullity in 2009-10 -- and we don't know if he's truly a changed man. The only thing that has changed for sure is his ability to play quarterback, that he has somehow become a read-and-react guy rather than a react-and-rarely-read guy, that he's seemingly figured out how to play a position that once seemed to be playing him. That's a storyline that must be told, and if you don't want to read it, turn the page. Perhaps there will be a story reminding you of what Vick once did. Just don't expect it every day.