Harry R. Jackson, Jr.
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The story of the $130-million-a-year football contract thrown down the drain by an impulsive 27-year-old is a tragic misuse of time, talent, and money. Of all the secret vices that have been exposed recently, dog fighting is perhaps the most bizarre. For the better part of a month now, sports enthusiasts have debated the fate of Michael Vick, famed quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons. Once his guilt was established, the obvious question was, “Now, what?”

Two weeks ago I chatted with a wise, older gentleman at my health club concerning the Michael Vick court case. This retired surgeon said, “Americans are a forgiving people.” We agreed that Vick needed to make a public statement of remorse that came from his heart. We also felt that the likelihood of Vick making a believable apology was uncertain. Don Imus, Paris Hilton, and a long list of celebrities have recently fallen out of grace with the public. Despite their pleas for public leniency, they were sentenced severely in the court of public opinion.

In my mind, we are experiencing an “anti-celeb” backlash. Fans are no longer mindlessly following their leaders or “super stars.” They are demanding both responsibility and character. The Vick’s case is no different. Except for the fact that he should have been the poster child for “ghetto kid makes good,” he seemed like just another case of the privileged gone bad.

At heart, Vick seemed to be a good person, yet as he grew in stature he grew in arrogance. Flipping “the bird” at his fans seemed to be the ultimate coup de grace on his road to disgrace. Vick had become “too big for his britches.” Close observers say that Vick had obviously fallen into bad company. As a result, he seemed to relish the thug image of “the hood.” My friends and I hoped that he would make a mea culpa statement to the press that showed genuine contrition and humility. These traits are hard to fake. Since emotional maturity and football prowess rarely seem to coincide, we were not expecting much from Vick unless he allowed a “behind the scenes” mentor to help him prepare for the most important speech of his life.

This past week, Michael Vick’s public confession went very well. He said “I’m upset with myself, and you know, through this situation I found Jesus and asked him for forgiveness and turned my life over to God.”

Many people were impressed with his delivery and the content of his message. Yet, a great number of people doubt his sincerity.

We need to give Vick, Paris Hilton and others a chance to change their lives. Although we use the expression “a leopard cannot change its spots,” people can and do change. The proof of this is seen in the life of Jim Vance, news anchor for NBC4 in Washington, D.C. Last month he was inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame. He began broadcasting in D.C. in 1969 and moved to the anchor desk in 1972. Somewhere in Vance’s journey, he deviated from his pioneer success strategy and became addicted to drugs. Thankfully, the community supported him as he entered rehab and kicked the drug habit. Over his lifetime, Vance has earned 15 Emmys and has been named “Washingtonian of the Year” by Washingtonian magazine. He is a real model of personal restoration – taking our lives back.

This kind of personal transformation is at the heart of the American story. It is very American to believe deeply in the power of personal achievement based on hard work, initiative, and internal drive. This belief is mirrored in the stories of faith recorded in the Bible which enabled people to surmount seemingly immovable road blocks and obstacles. Let’s encourage Vick to do his time and pay his fines. After his suspension, he may very well come back to football – a better man and a better player.

I want to live in an America in which the Paris Hiltons get back on track and the Michael Vicks wake up and live up to their potential. Let’s give Vick, Hilton, and others a second chance to become the heroes of their dreams. I may sound naive, but I am tired of allowing negativism to rule the day.

You and I can create an environment in this nation that gives people space to change and mature --- a nation that gives celebrities space to create a second chance. Wouldn’t that be something?

Management theorist Stephen Covey writes, "It takes a great deal of character strength to apologize quickly out of one's heart rather than out of pity. A person must possess himself and have a deep sense of security in fundamental principles and values in order to genuinely apologize." Think about a day in which this exemplifies the nature of celebrity apologies. It may take the same strength of character for us to accept these apologies and allow for a second chance.

Let’s believe in people and let that belief change our world.

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Harry R. Jackson, Jr.

Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.