One morning last spring, I sat in a National Press Club audience that was riveted to the testimony of a clean-shaven, light-skinned, middle-aged, college-educated, black man who told us how he was trying to re-establish his life after drugs cost him his livelihood and eventually his freedom. He spoke before a breakfast meeting of Samaritan Ministries of Greater Washington, which he'd turned to for a second chance at mainstream life after so many would-be employers, landlords and others had turned their backs on him because of the most-recent entry on his resume: prison inmate.
The man who transformed us into a rapt audience that morning was living the rule for ex-cons. Michael Vick is, unfortunately, the exception.
The Vick story may be the most transcendent from the sports pages this year, but I'm afraid that it is for the wrong reason.
It really shouldn't be about Vick's redemption off the field as a do-the-right-thing citizen, or on the field as an MVP candidate quarterback for the playoff-bound Eagles. It should be, instead -- as Peter King revealed the other day of the phone call he heard about from President Obama to Eagles' owner Jeffrey Lurie -- about what the Eagles did: extend a hand to a fallen, remorseful man who continues to pay his debt to society.
"The president wanted to talk about two things, but the first was Michael," King said Lurie told him about a phone call he received Sunday from the President. "He [the President] said, 'So many people who serve time never get a fair second chance. He was ... passionate about it. He said it's never a level playing field for prisoners when they get out of jail. And he was happy that we [the Eagles] did something on such a national stage that showed our faith in giving someone a second chance after such a major downfall."
Note: I am writing this column after dropping off my adopted 8-year-old Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever at a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital for surgery to repair her blown out ACL. (Who even knew dogs had ACLs?). I'm an animal lover. I support the Humane Society and shelters and have opined often in favor of laws to protect the welfare of the Creator's other creatures. I believe Proverbs 12:10, which states: "A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel."
Nonetheless, I also believe Vick deserved a second chance after serving 18 months in the infamous Leavenworth, Kan., federal prison, where he was sent after being convicted of charges related to a dog fighting ring he funded, supervised and operated in his hometown of Newport News, Va. And I think the Eagles, as the President suggested, should be applauded for giving Vick his second chance.
More important, I think the Eagles should be emulated by others who have the means to help re-integrate into society those who have violated our laws but are remorseful for having done so and have paid whatever the requisite price.
Citizens who have always abided by the law and find themselves looking for work during this time of high unemployment shouldn't have to get in line behind those who have broken the law and are now looking for honest work. Being a former offender, however, shouldn't preclude someone from getting another chance, and there are more and more ex-offenders on our streets because of a prison population, fueled heavily by drug abuse, that continues to grow.
A study released last month by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington estimated that our working-age population includes between 12 and 14 million ex-offenders whose prison time or felony convictions so greatly lower their prospects for employment that they alone raise the unemployment rate by 1.5 to 1.7 percentage points. The study estimated that their unemployment cost the country between $57 and $65 billion in lost output.
So, refusing people a second chance not only is unfair to them, as the President pointed out, it is also costly to the rest of us. (For further elucidation on this topic, also see one of the best books of 2010, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" by Michelle Alexander, an Ohio State University law professor and former director of the Civil Rights Clinic at Stanford Law School.)
Who knows what the cost to the Eagles and Philadelphia -- if not the NFL at large -- would be had Lurie and his coach Andy Reid not heeded the suggestion of their former quarterback Donovan McNabb and offered Vick a chance to play NFL football again? The Eagles might not be 10-4 and owners of the NFC East Division title. They almost certainly wouldn't be the highest-scoring team in the NFC with the most-exciting offensive attack.
The Eagles wouldn't be the second-most watched NFL team on television this year, having drawn four of the top 14 audiences, second only to the Cowboys. Vick's jersey wouldn't be the 20th most popular among purchases of NFL official merchandise this season after not appearing in the top 100 prior to this year.
There is plenty of evidence that football fans, casual and fanatic, are giving Vick a second chance. He was until recently the top vote getter for the Pro Bowl game. Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady nudged him out.
The Philadelphia Daily News on Tuesday released the findings of a survey it conducted with the Sports Industry Research Center at Temple University that showed 60 percent of people had a more positive view of Vick when asked if his performance on and off the field had changed their opinion of him. The News reported that 16 percent of respondents said that the positive feelings they had toward him remained unchanged. Of the 24 percent who had a negative opinion of Vick, 23 percent said their feelings remained unchanged, and only 1 percent said they were more negative.
So Vick won more than mere games and titles this season. He won hearts and minds. But he couldn't have done it if the Eagles hadn't given him the chance that so many with his recent background don't get.