This weekend, the Pittsburgh Steelers lost their chance to play in the Super Bowl, leaving many a Steelers fan heartbroken. But there's a contingent of Pittsburgh residents who celebrated the loss. The locals rallying against the home team haven’t supported their city’s most popular sports team since August, when quarterback Michael Vick joined the team.
“Hopefully Vick will not be re-signed and will go far, far away and live a quiet life where he never lays a finger on another animal,” reads a post published to the Pittsburghers Against Michael Vick Facebook group on Sunday. “He has no place in Pittsburgh or anywhere in the NFL, for that matter.”
This particular anti-Vick group formed when the notorious quarterback signed with the Steelers, a man perhaps more famous for his involvement in a dogfighting ring than his football skills. Around that same time this summer, one fan started a petition to have Vick kicked off the team; the petition garnered more than 34,000 signatures.
Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin has said that he isn’t concerned about backlash from fans or about Vick’s past. “Rest assured that he has done a lot since some of the things that he has gone through. His track record to this point speaks for itself,” he told Trib Total Media, the online home of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Since his release from federal prison in 2009, Vick has worked with the Humane Society to help stop dogfighting, and he helped get the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act passed in Congress. Recently, he made a trip to the Pennsylvania statehouse to support a bill that would give police more authority to rescue pets left in hot cars.
Still, people show up to games to protest, and countless others have called for his removal from the NFL entirely. Vick’s supporters say it’s time to move on.
“When are you going to lay off of Michael Vick?” wrote Fairmont, West Virginia, resident Tom Harper in a letter to the editor published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in December. “Yeah, what he did was wrong; yeah, he paid his debt to society back in 2007 … but the Vick garbage just won’t stop, even this late in the year. Let it go, already.”
But Vick’s critics can’t let it go, and they’re quick to point out that his fans might not know the whole story.
The case against Vick
Vick’s name may be synonymous with animal cruelty, but the quarterback never actually served time for that crime. Charges of animal cruelty were dropped as part of a plea bargain, and he was convicted of bankrolling a dogfighting conspiracy. He was sentenced to 23 months in prison.
“Neither Michael Vick nor any of his Bad Newz Kennels cohorts were ever tried let alone convicted for animal cruelty. The federal case was all about racketeering,” said Francis Battista, co-founder and chairman of the board of directors for Best Friends Animal Society, a no-kill sanctuary that took in 22 of the 49 dogs found alive on Vick’s property.
Ten of the more adoptable canines from Vick’s dogfighting ring went to BAD RAP, an animal rescue group devoted to rehabilitating pit bulls, and in 2007, Donna Reynolds, co-founder of the organization, went to Virginia to evaluate those dogs. She later shared details of the dogs’ abuse on her blog, noting that she wears “some pretty thick skin” but “can’t shake” what she learned.
“The rescuer in me keeps trying to think of a way to go back in time and somehow stop this torture,” she wrote.
"What Michael Vick did was not just dogfighting," Marthina McClay, who adopted one of the Vick dogs, told The San Francisco Chronicle. "It went so far beyond that, and most people who defend him are uninformed."
After failing a polygraph, Vick admitted to killing dogs that wouldn’t fight or didn’t perform well, but he never faced animal cruelty charges and many of critics are angry about it. It’s part of the reason why Vick continues to encounter protesters at his games and why people still raise the question of “If he hadn’t gotten caught, would he still be killing dogs?”
"It worked out nicely for Vick that he never faced his animal abuse charges in court,” Reynolds said. “That meant football fans were spared the most disturbing details of his tortures and could go back to their Sunday night ritual with barely a hiccup."
Has Michael Vick really changed?
Vick is well aware that his presence in the NFL is difficult for his critics to accept, and accepts that while some people may have forgiven him, they certainly haven’t forgotten why he’s such a controversial figure.
“The best thing to do was make amends for what I did. I can’t take it back,” he told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in August. “The only thing I can do is influence the masses of kids from going down the same road I went down. That’s why I work with the Humane Society and affecting a lot of kids’ lives and saving a lot of animals. We’ve had lot of a progress. We’ve been able to change some laws and do some great things that I’m very proud of.”
Since his release from prison, Vick has worked hard to rebuild both his professional football career and his reputation. He’s since played on three NFL teams, and he’s backed animal cruelty legislation and been an active participant in the Humane Society’s anti-dogfighting campaign — the latter of which has brought the animal-welfare organization so much negative attention that it addresses its affiliation with Vick in a series of frequently asked questions on its website.
While Vick's critics argue that he hasn't properly apologized and hasn't expressed believable remorse, others say he's a changed man who's trying to redefine himself. When Vick issued an apology after signing with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2009, the New York Times had multiple writers weigh in on whether Vick was truly repentant.
Perhaps most surprisingly is the response from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which has been somewhat supportive of Vick’s return to football.
“As long as he’s throwing a football and not electrocuting a dog, PETA is pleased he is focused on his game,” PETA Senior Vice President Lisa Lange said in a statement.
The 'Vicktory Dogs'
In its analysis of the Vick case, the Animal Legal Defense Fund outlined some of the unusual aspects of the case, one of which is that the dogs weren’t euthanized when the case concluded — a first for canines involved in dogfighting rings, which animal advocates hope sets a new standard.
“The longstanding policy had been a de facto declaration that any dogs freed from a dog-fighting ring were, by definition, dangerous and should be put down,” said Battista of Best Friends Animal Society. “[It’s] a sad irony: Save the dogs from a group of criminal abusers only to kill them.”
During Vick’s high-profile case, there was a lot of discussion about what should happen to the remaining dogs. Pit bulls are already controversial animals, and many people argued that these dogs in particular were damaged, dangerous and impossible to rehabilitate. Still, a group of animal welfare organizations fought to save the 49 dogs.
“We wanted all the dogs to be evaluated as individuals and given the chance to be rehabilitated and rehomed. So the first few months of the ‘rescue,’ if you want to call it that, was a public opinion campaign,” said Battista.
Best Friends, along with other animal advocacy organizations, filed an amicus brief for the dogs to be saved, and the court later appointed a guardian/special master to oversee the evaluation of the dogs.
Best Friends was given custody of 22 of the most traumatized dogs, and John Garcia — who co-managed the sanctuary’s dogs at the time — flew from Virginia to Utah with the dogs so they’d already be familiar with him when they arrived at the sanctuary.
“These dogs, which we called ‘The Vicktory Dogs,’ were different than what we expected,” he said. “Most of the time when dogs are rescued from a dogfighting operation ... they are easy to handle and comfortable with being approached by a person. But these dogs, their temperaments ran from one end of the spectrum to another. While there were some that were comfortable with people, we had many more that were completely terrified and shutdown.”
Garcia and his staff spent a great deal of time with the dogs and developed individual rehabilitation plans for each one.
“We tracked every dog every day. That helped us keep adjusting the plan. It was amazing to see how much change happened. We especially noticed that once they got to go home, they blossomed. Little Red, for instance, was scared to death of everything, and once she got into a home, she turned into a diva.”
Of those 22 pit bulls that Best Friends took in, 13 were eventually adopted. Seven of the 22 dogs have since died of natural causes, and six remain at the sanctuary. Today, several of the adopted pit bulls, including Handsome Dan and Cherry Garcia, even have Facebook pages where their families keep the dogs’ fans up to date with the latest news, including the latest snuggly doggy photo.
“The Champions” is a new documentary that follows five of Vick’s dogs from rescue to adoption as well as the six pit bulls that remain at Best Friends. It's an uplifting reminder of how our discussion of dogfighting — from the rescued dogs to the people who put them in danger — has evolved into a story about second chances. Check out the movie's trailer below: