Stop the experiment

By John Smallwood
Updated: August 5, 2010

BETHLEHEM — The Eagles and the NFL should just concern themselves with the rehabilitation of Michael Vick as a football player.

If that were the case, things would be easy. It simply would be a matter of whether the quarterback could still play.

The other stuff – saving his soul, changing his culture, creating an agent of social change – is way beyond their pay grade.

Humans have tried for millions of years to bridge the gaps of cultural differences, so that we can better understand and help one another navigate difficult times.

What hundreds of generations haven’t accomplished is not something Vick, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie ever could do in fewer than 365 days.

For the better part of the last year, whenever I’ve heard someone talk about Vick, I haven’t pictured a man. I’ve seen a guinea pig wearing shoulder pads and an Eagles helmet.

Virtually every discussion about Vick seems set in the terms of some grand lab experiment on the redemption of a soul.

It is ridiculous to think the NFL or any sports league is capable of solving a cultural and socioeconomic issue that the United States has struggled with for more than two centuries.

And it’s even more ridiculous to think Vick is motivated to be a lab rat by anything more than saving his career. To be fair, he never asked to be labeled as an agent for social change. He just wanted to play football again.

“It’s all about football for me now,” Vick said yesterday when asked whether he welcomed the day that his story would be about only football. “It’s all about being with the guys, building camaraderie, chemistry and focus on winning that first game.”

Goodell was correct in not punishing Vick any further after a shooting that occurred at his public birthday party on June 25. What facts are known indicate that Vick did not commit a crime or lie to the NFL or the Eagles about what happened.

Other than a bad decision to throw a public event that anyone with $50 could attend, Vick did nothing wrong.

Still, I don’t believe Goodell’s motivations are that simple. The league and the Eagles want Vick to complete this comeback, and not only because they stuck their necks out for him.

They understand that other NFL players were raised in environments similar to Vick’s and could be subject to the same temptations that led him down a dark path. That’s why Goodell emphasized that the league was offering Vick “additional support” to help him make better decisions.

“When a player comes from an environment where they’re trying to satisfy some of the members of that environment that they grew up with and get labeled as no longer supportive of their old friends or their old family, we’ve got to do a better job of both monitoring and supporting that player because that’s a tough one,” Lurie said.

Basically, the NFL wants to show that not only can it take Vick out of “The ‘Hood,” it can take “The ‘Hood” out of Vick. And if the NFL can succeed with Vick, it can succeed with other players who may face similar temptations.

“This is a good case,” Lurie said. “This is a good chance to support that.

“These kids, they’re from a very different environment, and that’s something we should take up in sports.”

I don’t want to pick on Lurie, because I’m sure his heart is in the right place on this issue.

Still, his statement is incredibly naïve.

I’m not sure Lurie understands how much unrealistic expectation he places on Vick when he says something like “there’s a tremendous impetus for social change” from Vick’s story.

That’s the field of play of President Obama, not a second-string quarterback who simply wants to regain his NFL stardom.

Few, if any, athletes are equipped to deal with something like that.

There is such a disconnect between what the NFL and the Eagles see and what Vick sees.

“There weren’t even differences, from a general understanding from before,” Vick said of his conversation on Tuesday with Goodell. “Just some things that I did that I felt like wasn’t part of our plan, and that’s why I was disappointed. So we just got back on the same page and back on the right track, and him letting me know what his expectations are for me.”

I think Vick, Goodell and the Eagles were on the same page. They were just writing with different ink.

I don’t think Vick believed there was anything wrong with having a public party until a co-defendant from his dogfighting trial got shot in the leg and he came under scrutiny.

Before something actually happened, I don’t think Lurie would have had a clue of how to explain to Vick what a “lapse in judgment without wrongdoing” was.

I asked Lurie that, considering there is such a cultural divide between those who run the NFL and players who grew up in an environment like Vick’s, who determines what “additional supports” are needed?

When criminal activity is not involved, who has the experience to determine what is a lapse in judgment and what is wrongdoing worthy of punishment?

“That is such a large societal question,” Lurie said. “I mean, bullfighting is the No. 1 sport in Spain besides soccer. If you had bullfighting in Philadelphia, you probably would not get support for it.

“Every country and every area operates in its own context. There are no easy answers to the sort of anthropological analysis of how we understand what’s right and what’s wrong.”

That’s exactly the point.

Since he was cleared of all criminal wrongdoing, Vick probably doesn’t even consider the incident a mistake in judgment.

“Exactly what you said, a higher standard,” Vick responded when asked what Goodell expected of him. “It’s no problem, no biggie. I’m a changed man anyway so that’s going to be easy.

“I always welcome support. I’ll take it and I’ll use it to my advantage . . . I think it will be an extra thing I have in my back pocket, but for the most part, I’m going to walk the walk.”

For the sake of his NFL future, Vick had better hope that walk fits within the constraints of the NFL experiment he is caught in.