In the past year or so, we as sports fans have been confronted with some compelling dilemmas when it comes to placing our allegiances with athletes. Almost a year ago, Tiger Woods' car hit a tree, and his life and career went into a tailspin. (His gas tank must have been leaking... secrets!) As it turned out, Tiger had committed several infidelities with different women, which all came to light over the following weeks. He and his wife, Elin, attempted to reconcile this issue, but I'm sure the scope of it all (thanks, ESPN/TMZ) made a return to normalcy, and trust for that matter, impossible. So, they got divorced, and now Tiger is making the media rounds he should have done ten months ago and clearing the air with regards to how he feels about all this.
What is compelling for me through all this is what happened to his public image. Woods was one of the most recognized and beloved sports icons in the world a year ago, which is impressive considering he plays golf, a sport that 95 percent of Americans would not be able to bear watching for more than half an hour. His approval rating was over 80 percent (yes, CNN keeps this sort of data) at this time last year, and once his infidelity came to light, his rating was down to 34 percent. He lost many of his endorsements, of which he had many, and considering he wasn't earning much in terms of golf tournaments, that has a big impact on his net worth (I know, cry me a river, but he's got a life too).
And yet in July, an annual Harris poll revealed that Woods retained his title as America's Favorite Sports Star (a title he has held since 2006), although he was tied for the first time in that run (with Kobe Bryant; more on him in a moment).
So how do explain yourself, America? The guy broke one of the Ten Commandments several times, and abused his public image as a means to this end! And what about Kobe? He admitted to an adulterous relationship that initially was reported as sexual assault, and both of these guys are America's favorite athletes?
The sad truth of it is that the difference between these guys and the Pacman Jones/Ron Artest/Latrell Sprewell category is that Kobe and Tiger have titles. A lot of them. This probably doesn't make sense logically, but American sports fans do a pretty good job of parsing performance on the court/field from performance in unrelated domains, and if you are a winner, people see you as a winner. Terrell Owens and Randy Moss have two things in common: they have poor public images (though no legal troubles), and they haven't won anything. Kobe has won multiple championships since his whole scandal, and I think that Tiger's not-so-hot performance on the course lately is what kept him from holding the Favorite Sports Star title by himself, because he certainly has the career success that Kobe has.
People who pay sufficient attention to sports just don't have as strong moral sensibilities as people who don't, I guess. Perhaps it's related to the fact that they spend time on such a pointless enterprise as paying attention to people they don't know playing a game they can't play rather than making the world a better place or something. Maybe sports fans are just bad people; certainly would explain New York/Boston/Philly fans, and this. We care a lot more about punishing people who cheated the game (Bonds, McGwire, etc.) than people who cheated their wives, children, friends, or anyone else, and that's just how sick our society has become.
But what do we do now with Michael Vick?
The guy funded and participated in a dog-fighting ring, occasionally actively killing dogs. He served almost two years in jail for this offense and disgraced the Falcons franchise that put so much money and faith into him. He got out of jail last summer, and was allowed back into the league after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke to him and reported that Vick seemed to have genuine remorse for his actions.
Of course, animal rights enthusiasts will be all, "An apology is not good enough! He can't undo what he did," but if there were no forgiveness in the world, society would fail. I understand that he did horrible things to animals, but we have to keep in mind that our legal system is designed to appropriately punish for crimes, and after that (in theory) the culprit is allowed to continue living just like everyone else. If NFL teams felt like Vick was a bad seed or whatever, they could just ignore him and not worry about it, and he wouldn't get the opportunity to take advantage of the privilege that is playing pro football.
Well, Andy Reid puts a premium on forgiveness and redemption since his sons have had their share of troubles, and he picked Vick up. Now, Vick is a legitimate MVP candidate and just put together one of the greatest quarterback performances of all time (20-28, 333 yards, 4 TD; 8 rushes, 80 yards, 2 TD). Steve Young may as well have been standing there pumping helium straight into Vick's ego balloon after the Monday Night game, and NFL analysts are abuzz about the indefensible Eagles offense. So is Vick already back to being forgiven by the sports community?
First of all, Michael Vick was never on the level of Tiger Woods in terms of public opinion, but he was a well-known and exciting player that drew a lot of attention to his team and the league. But is a forgettable first season (though without incident and with many anti-dogfighting events) and an excellent half of a season enough to get people to forget about the images they saw as his crimes came to light? What's weird to me is that this offense is probably more likely to linger than Woods' (and certainly Kobe's), and the only explanation is that people REALLY care about dogs, for whatever reason (and I'm not going to get into my opinion on our obsession with pets). I think we treat cruelty toward animals as tantamount to cruelty toward people, which is really quite magnanimous of us as a species, considering natural selection and all that. I also think that it just might be that dogfighting and animal cruelty are more unique than cheating and sexual abuse, so they're more abhorrent by our estimation.
So, if Michael Vick really wants to get back into the good graces of the sports community, he should probably win the Eagles a Super Bowl this year. Just saying.