Michael Vick and Michael Phelps

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

It’s been a week now since former football superstar Michael Vick walked out of a federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, escorted by agents who ensconced him for the last two months of his 23-month sentence in his home back East. During these two months, Vick will 24-7 wear a tracking device and be allowed to leave the house for only work, medical appointments, and check-ins with his prison officers. The former multi-millionaire is now flat broke and working a 9-to-5 construction job for $10 an hour. The reality of Vick’s involvement in a cruel dog-fighting ring has slapped the once franchise quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons hard indeed. And now the debate rages. Vick is nearing the end of paying for his crime, in the eyes of the law. But the NFL Commissioner has yet to decide if Vick will be cleared to play again in the NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodell has a tricky decision on his plate. The American way has paved a history of second chances. You do the crime, you pay the time. It’s simple logic. Vick has lived a hard prison life for two years, he’s made his apologies, and now he should be free to live and make his living in any way he chooses. And there are many Vick fans, and even Vick detractors, who hold by the tenets of the justice system and say it’s over and done with. Fair and square. If Vick wants to return to professional football, why shouldn’t he?

But Vick’s crime wasn’t grand auto theft or embezzlement or trafficking drugs across state lines. Cruel acts committed upon innocent animals carries an emotional weight and memory and Roger Goodell realizes this. He has expressed a demand for sincere remorse on Vick’s part. But how is he, how is the public, going to determine sincere remorse? Vick is surely sorry that he broke laws, that he dishonored his team, that he repulsed his fans.

My instinct is that this coming season will be too soon to reinstate Vick. By the strict letter of the law, that’s not fair. But if Vick takes a year to spend time with his family, to dig into the values of a working man’s blue-collar struggle, to get his body back into NFL shape, we the public just might be ready to appreciate him on the gridiron once again. If I were Mr. Goodell, that’s what I would do. Keep Vick out of the game one more year.

Ironically enough, even without a spoken or written formal statement of contrition about the dog fights he organized and the cruelty he foisted on some of those animals, the publicity of Vick’s case has probably done more to curb dog fighting and educate against animal abuse that any projects in recent history. And if Vick does suit up as Sunday quarterback again, the PETA protests at his games will bring further attention to the issue.

We’re not going to throw Michael Phelps into the same criminal category with Michael Vick. But it has been quite the eye-opener to witness one photo of indiscretion, Phelps smoking a bong pipe, nearly unravel the gargantuan positive image constructed by his monumental accomplishments of eight gold medals in one Olympic Games. We hold our athletes up as the paradigm of cookies and milk clean living and it’s crushing to our collective perception of their hero mystique when they behave outside our expectations. But when Phelps splashed down his lane for the first time in competition last week in Charlotte, the stands were teeming with forgiving fans. It was perhaps even fortuitous that he lost a couple of races in Charlotte. We long to see him work hard again, be humble again, earn our respect again. And Phelps is already setting the stage for 2012 in London. Chances are great he won’t win another eight gold; and chances are equally certain that we will nonetheless marvel at both his talents and the fact that he makes human blunders just like the rest of us.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.



Diana Nyad