There’s a moment in David Fincher’s film The Social Network where Eduardo Saverin turns to Mark Zuckerberg and says “I’m being accused of animal cruelty. It’s better to be accused of necrophilia.” It’s actually one of the film’s lighter moments: as part of his initiation into Harvard’s Phoenix Club, Saverin had to take a chicken with him wherever he went. When eating dinner in his college’s dining hall one night, he feeds his hungry chicken the only food that he has available to him: chicken.
The audience laughs with appropriately intermingled disgust and amusement, and are left to spend the remainder of the film wondering which of the potential culprits was the one that fed (no pun intended) Saverin’s story to Harvard’s newspaper, The Crimson, in a clear attempt to make him appear insensitive, heartless and cruel.
Of course, animal cruelty is seen as being one of the world’s most despicable crimes, along with cruelty to children or other vulnerable beings, as the defencelessness of the victims is at the heart of our collective outrage at the perpetrators of such acts.
All of which is why Michael Vick, the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, is the sporting figure whose deification by supporters is the one I have most difficulty in comprehending.
In 2007, a dogfighting operation was discovered at Vick’s property. Vick pled guilty to his role in “Bad Newz Kennels“, including “Conspiracy to Travel in Interstate Commerce in Aid of Unlawful Activities and to Sponsor a Dog in an Animal Fighting Venture,” participating in dog fights, and killing dogs who “did not perform well in ‘testing’ sessions”. Some of the underperforming dogs were killed by hanging or drowning. He was sentenced to 19 months jail. (You can read his plea here.)
After his release, Vick was been recruited by Philadelphia and this year has at times been their starting quarterback.
In a recent Sports Illustrated, Jim Gorant (the author of The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick’s Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption) commented on the contrasting viewpoints people can take and have taken in relation to Vick’s reinstatement as one of the most celebrated, athletic quarterbacks of the past 15 years:
“For those aggrieved groups the Vick situation is simple: If he isn’t going to spend the rest of his days behind bars, he should certainly not spend them in the glamorous, adulation-filled world of professional sports.
“[But] reality, as it often does, defies simplicity…In some bizarro way, Vick may be the best thing that ever happened to pit bulls and the antidogfighting effort.”
Gorant supports this second viewpoint by arguing that Vick’s arrest and the national media attention the case generated has led authorities to realise that dogfighting cases have value – the public views them favourably, and investigators almost always uncover other types of criminal activity. Also, the eventual treatment of rescued dogs has also changed, from “mass, unconsidered euthanasia” to “a process of individual evaluation with a goal of saving those capable of being rehabilitated.”
Gorant also revealed that Vick “had to declare bankruptcy and is currently working his way through a repayment plan that forced him to divest almost all his holdings and that also limits his income. He’s about $20 million in the hole, and his future is less certain than it seems.”
All of which seems only reasonable for a man who committed what should be regarded to be one of the world’s most heinous crimes. Except for when one pauses and thinks about the crime itself.
For surely being “$20 million in the hole” is not nearly as brutal a fate as being tossed into a ring, trained and forced to fight for your life, and when it eventuates that you are not as powerful or aggressive as some of the other creatures – and thus, you have presumably suffered unconscionable mental terror along with gross physical injury – you are either drowned or a noose is placed around your neck for your eventual strangulation.
One of the questions that lingers long after viewing The Social Network is related to what should be regarded as appropriate remuneration for punitive damages. How much money would billionaire Mark Zuckerberg have to part with in settling his lawsuits before it had any negative impact on his wealth or his mental wellbeing? How much would it take for him to actually, genuinely regret his actions? Or are such lawsuits only about enabling the “victims”, rather than causing genuine distress for the “perpetrator”?
The realisation that lingers every time we see Michael Vick on the gridiron is that no amount of money and everlasting debt for the perpetrator could ever appear reasonable for his crimes. And while such punitive punishment may cause Vick to regret his actions, it certainly cannot do anything to help enable the victims of his crimes, most of whom are long dead after suffering through lives of violence.
Gorant argues that “Vick should be permitted to play – he has served his time – but when we see him on TV running and throwing and scoring, we should see a football player and a constant reminder of the horrific abuse he committed and that others continue to mete out.”
Which, surely, is an idea worth spreading.