Michael Vick, Hip-Hop, and the Politics of Punishment

“What if Peyton was fighting dogs instead of Mike Vick?/”

—Jadakiss ft. Nas, “What If,” The Last Kiss, 2009.

“They say I’m all about murder-murder and kill-kill/ But

what about Grindhouse and Kill Bill?/ What about Cheney and Halliburton?/ …

How’s NaS the most violent person?/”

—Nas, “Sly FoxUntitled, 2008.

“What if history was changed?/ Slavery reversed/ Would black

ladies see white boys/ And clinch they purse?/”

—Fredro Starr, “What If,” Firestarr, 2001.

Finally,

Michael Dwayne Vick

is free—well, not so. Stuck with an ankle monitor, Vick is to spend two months

of home confinement at his Virginia residence. Last Wednesday, the former Atlanta

Falcons quarterback was released from a Leavenworth, Kansas, federal prison,

after spending 19 months there for allegedly running an illegal dogfighting

ring. 

Right on cue,

the sports media is fired up and ready to go. Weeks before his release date

drew close, the pundit circuit had begun setting parameters under which Vick

could once again play the sport he was untouchable at. To hear them tell it, he

would have to make a public apology, televise commercials warning against the

dangers of dogfighting, beg for Roger Goodell’s (NFL commissioner) forgiveness,

and make amends—financially—for his wrongdoings. Among other things, he would

have to join forces with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)—the

same organization which recently asked that he undergo “mental evaluation”—to

emphasize regret about his past conducts. Vick is being pressured to form

alliance with this group, which ruthlessly engages in crude advertisements,

ostensibly to justify their love for animals, such as dressing

up in Ku Klux Klan (KKK) garbs and accusing targets of attempts to create a

“master race” of pure bred dogs—which, they argue, shares similarities with the

KKK’s values.

Forbes magazine National Editor, Michael

Ozanian, captured this whirlwind of self-satisfying rhetoric-fest last

Saturday, in a column titled “Free Michael Vick.” He wrote:

Vick has served his time under the law. He should not have

to bend over backwards and do summersaults to prove anything to NFL

commissioner Roger Goodell. Vick should not have to kiss the butt of the Humane

Society or assist the animal rights group in any way. He should not have to

“donate” any of his future earnings to any causes to repent. The law is the

law. Vick broke it and paid the price. It is now time to completely free him. 

It’s

important to note that Michael Vick spent 19 months behind bars for a crime,

inhumane as it was, more mainstream than the elite, gotcha media tried to make it out to be. (And it ain’t just Black folks doing it.) 

The acerbic

condemnation lashed out at Vick during the beginning stages of his trial,

proved that, for many, it had less to do with Vick’s alleged crimes against

canines, and more with his function as a Black Quarterback (an anomaly in the

league). And not just any Black QB, but a fearless one—at that. Before the

prosecution could unravel all evidence sought in incriminating Vick, most

pundits had convinced themselves that not only was he guilty, but jail time was

due. The reason for this was explained by Black Philadelphia Eagles

Quarterback, Donovan McNabb, in a 2007 HBO documentary.    

McNabb, no

stranger to media-generated controversies, himself, was more qualified than any

other in his contention that Black athletes, and Black Quarterbacks especially,

bear burdens their White counterparts are never subjected to. “There’s not that

many African-American Quarterbacks, so we have to do a little bit extra,”

McNabb said. Using his career as a case study, he continued: “Because the

percentage of us playing this position, which people didn’t want us to play, is

low… we do a little extra.”

That extra he spoke off, is what constitutes the

stark racial disparity of coverage issued by mainstream media and directed at Black

athletes—more so, the non-conformist

ones. Vick was one of those—like T O—non-conformist. And for that, he paid a

steep price. I’m not, by any means, suggesting that Michael Vick or T O are

progressive athletes with revolutionary inclinations, but their firm commitment

to on and off-field unregulated self-expression, counts for much in the larger

equation of Black professional athleticism.

   

I’ve always

believed that the greatest sin a Black professional athlete can commit, in the

eyes of Major League Sports, is to intimate—not necessarily state—that their

career is not the most important priority in life. Once that happens, the media

is whipped-up and unleashed on these personalities, and equipped with all

weaponry needed to destroy, defame and defeat that spirit which provoked such

defiant conviction. If unsuccessful in defeating the spirit, they usually have no choice but to assassinate the characters

themselves. This has happened time and time again. Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown,

Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Mike “Iron Mike” Tyson, Shareef

Abdur-Rahim, and Etan Thomas are but a few examples.

The threat

posed by such intimation never misses the detection of the three draconian-like

commissioners: Roger Goodell (NFL), David Stern (NBA), Bud Selig (MLB). Above

all, Roger Goodell has been most competent in taking Authoritarianism to

unreached heights.  

In Vick’s

case, it’s hardly a secret that no other figure must be more pleased with his

appeal, than Mr. Goodell. Of course, as one only who possesses the power to

reinstate Vick, Goodell has made known—in indefinite terms—what requirements

are made of him: “Michael’s going to have to demonstrate to myself and the

general public and to a lot of people, did he learn anything from this

experience? Does he regret what happened? Does he feel that he can be a

positive influence going forward?” At this statement, I’m reminded of the old

joke, coined by 19th century journalist, Charles Anderson Dana: “Dog

Bites Man: Not News. Man Bites Dog: News.”

Any observant

eye can see that Commissioner Goodell has been anything but a “positive

influence,” in his role as CEO of the NFL. Taking any and all opportunities to

regulate the lives of players, Goodell’s policies have no limit in absurdity

and acidity. A succinct example of his sulfuric sensibilities came

through last year, during the media-made firestorm around former Dallas Cowboy

cornerback, Adam Jones, for a reported violation of “personal conduct policy.”

Jones was suspended indefinitely, but not before Goodell could humiliate him as creatively as possible. 

In an open

letter to Jones, published for the world to see, he wrote: “It’s terribly

disappointing to me that we’re dealing with this again and that he’s reflecting

so poorly on all of the players in this league, which they don’t deserve.” Like

a parent reprimanding a child, Goodell further explained that Jones’ actions had

produced a “disturbing pattern of behavior,” which was “clearly inconsistent

with the conditions I set for your

continued participation in the NFL.” [Emphasis mine]   

Goodell’s

remarks last week share a striking similarity to that letter, and for good

reason: Most Black men, like Michael Vick and Adam Jones, are inherently

smeared with the Hip-Hop stereotype;

a taint unlike any other in its destructive potentials and demonizing

possibilities. 

The fact that

men who look like Roger Goodell and David Stern are more likely to be found as

executives of record labels, bears no invalidation upon this assertion. The

fact that those who cling to this theory are grossly unenlightened about the

true essence of Hip-Hop culture and music, couldn’t matter less in the

(money-making) discourses centered on (perceived) parallels between Black

masculinity and criminality. The fact that White athletes, like Jadakiss and

McNabb contended, are never subject to equally vitriolic generalized

representations, is meaningless to the Goodells and Sterns and Seligs of this

world.  

In “Public Spaces, Private Lives: Beyond the Culture of Cynicism

acclaimed scholar, Dr. Henry Giroux, argues, quite convincingly, that these

representations and images are having far more impact than mass media—which plays

the largest role—is willing to acknowledge. He writes:

Fed by widespread stereotypical images of black youth as

super predators and black culture as the culture of criminality, minority youth

face not only a criminal justice system that harasses and humiliates them but

also a larger society that increasingly undercuts their chances for a living

wage, quality jobs, essentially social services, and decent schools.

The politics

of punishment then becomes the last hope they

have left, to bleach out thuggery—independence—from the minds of Black

athletes. The politics of punishment comes to represent a salient,

administrative weapon of mass destruction that renders mute the vocal volumes

of political courage Black athletes are illimitably capable of mustering. The

politics of punishment successfully keeps at bay the worries of Goodell, Stern,

and Selig, ensuring that their employees—potential

forces for empowerment—are forever kept in check, and reduced to

factory-like workers, within the capitalistic system of professional sports.   

 “And why you tryin’ to slave us/

With

minimum wages/

Slammin’

my ni**as up in cages/

Changing

their behaviors/”

—Onyx,

“Last Dayz,” All We Got Iz Us, 1995.

Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic and a Columnist for BlackCommentator.com. He can be reached at Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com..

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