Redemption, Privilege and Identification: the Narrative of Michael Vick’s Return to Atlanta

Curator's Note

The first quarterback to lead the Atlanta Falcons to three straight winning seasons, one might assume that Matt Ryan would be iconic in Atlanta.  Yet he remains in former Falcon Michael Vick’s shadow, even as Vick is disliked elsewhere in the country for his past transgressions.

 Vick endured minor scandals with the Falcons until his role in a dogfighting ring landed him in federal prison.  He confessed to an active role in the hanging and drowning of several dogs.  He returned to the NFL after 23 months in prison and secured a $100 million contract as a Philadelphia Eagle.  Vick has returned to Atlanta twice— as a backup in 2009, and as a starter in a 2011 showdown— with much fanfare. 

 There’s no shortage of explanations for Vick’s appeal over Ryan’s despite his violent misconduct.  Race and class identification are starting points.  Certainly Vick’s “revolutionary” athleticism is a far bigger draw for a city reputed to “love its freaks.”   Ryan wins with comparatively less prowess. 

 However, this NFL piece pushes a narrative explaining Vick’s appeal specifically in the area of the southeast where Baptist congregation is more important to Sunday than the “NFL Experience”: redemption. 

 Ryan is not necessarily disliked (the pastor confesses to rooting for the Falcons).  However, his narrative is one of privilege (middle-class upbringing, private schooling, a larger rookie contract than Vick’s).  He is merely another talented person taking advantage of opportunity.

 Vick offers these fans an embodiment of what their congregation preaches.  In the full-length piece, a parishioner admits to seeing himself in Vick, having rebuilt his life after drug addiction.  The pastor does not see “Matt Ryans” in need of rescuing spiritually, but he sees his share of “Michael Vicks.”  Where others would see prior scandal as detrimental to image, these fans see it as a chance to speak their faith to power.  One could argue that Vick’s enduring popularity in the south is as much, maybe moreso, due to narrative identification than personal qualities.

Comments

Samir Dayal's picture

Vick v. Ryan: The Race Card, Again

Very interesting curation, particularly in the way you contrast Vick and Ryan along several axes: religion, class and race. I’m particularly interested in the race issue: the rhetoric and imagery that complicate the recent flap about how Vick has been represented in images distributed online. Touré’s ESPN The Magazine piece, which you referenced, "What if Michael Vick Were White?" whipped up a furore regarding this racializing representation. The context of sport casts this topic in a particular light. I am wondering about the enunciative status of this "What If …?" Who is asking this question about the racialized figure of Michael Vick, for instance? What is the motivation for the reduction of racial difference through humor? Can this sort of humor transcend (or does it merely minimize) the scandal of racism? Does it reinforce the dangerous myth that for black men especially, sports are the most visible or plausible route to fame and fortune? And ironically Vick’s popularity may be due at least in part to the way it feeds this myth. It would be interesting to hear more from you about how important this factor is in the contrast between Vick ‘s and Ryan’s public profiles or popularity.

Bryce McNeil's picture

When is a black quarterback NOT a black quarterback?

 Thanks for the feedback Samir!  Indeed, the axes are multiple and complicated.

You raise an important point about the dangerous and often unspoken premise that Vick shows sports as the "only way out" of an economically disenfranchised situation. This mythology was at the center of the UMiami football program’s popularity AND derision in the 1980s.  Many white fans (especially in the southwest) despised it for being made up of "thugs," others saw the team representing a gateway to the private school privilege to which those from lower income, "ghettoized" neighbourhoods would not otherwise be granted access.

This mythology reveals tension surrounding the American exceptionalism concept.  Within many southeast low-income black communities, this concept is inherently flawed and does not correspond to their reality (or perception of it, at the very least).

One could look at Ryan’s upbringing and assume that if he hadn’t become a football player, he could still have easily pursued a comfortable existence (he’d already completed his degree and took additional night classes during his senior year).  He wouldn’t be "destined" for a life of dogfighting had football failed him, whereas it is often portrayed (by both races) that such an existence would have been inevitable for Vick.

It is a very complicated intersection of race, class and regionalism, not MERELY one of the three.  Another interesting example illustrating this is Donovan McNabb.  McNabb is arguably one of the three most successful black quarterbacks ever:  making five Pro Bowls and like Ryan, his life is scandal-free.  But he also has northeastern middle-class roots and has come under fire for, essentially, not playing "black" enough, or not having the "tough" upbringing that a black athlete is "supposed" to have.  His critics thus argue he does not break the rigid white structure surrounding QB (something Touré references) because he challenges archetypes in race ONLY.

This "streetball" element contributes greatly to Vick’s popularity:  he challenges the (presumably white) concept of what successful quarterbacks do, not just whether successful QBs are white. 

Bryce McNeil's picture

Addendum

 Of course, the counternarrative of Vick’s victims is muted considerably as he did not physically harm any human beings.  There is an entire class/race/religious intersection that complicates Americans’ perceptions of dogfighting and animal rights that could constitute another entire entry.

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