It's revealing, however, that we call dogfighting a "sport." This can partly be explained by the double meaning of the word. One definition is mere "amusement." When we do things "for sport," we're doing them for trivial or base reasons. Yet, we also define "sportsmanship" as among the highest forms of conduct. We talk of the glories of sports, the purity of sports, the nobility of sports. Sport, we are told, is a selfless endeavor of sacrifice and excellence.
Businessmen and hucksters exploit this double meaning. After all, there's a lot of money to be made in athletes being seen as heroes. So, every few years we have one of these canned, fruitless debates about whether athletes should be role models, sparked by the latest incident of some poorly educated multimillionaire egomaniac beating (or killing) his wife, trashing a strip club, buying cocaine or, most recently, electrocuting dogs in his spare time.
When these men make tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, we are told that it's because such men are special, super even. They are heroes and community leaders, not to mention role models and brand names. But when these same ubermenschen hit the skids, the lawyers, P.R. flacks and front-office men suddenly decry holding these mere mortals to a double standard. Vick's defenders say he wouldn't be banned-for-life from any other profession, so why, they ask, should he banned from his career as a ball-thrower?
Well, if football were like ditch-digging and if we treated quarterbacks like ditch-diggers, this complaint would ring more true. But we treat quarterbacks like gods and sports like the highest form of human expression.
So when these men behave like devils and revel in the lowest aspects of humanity, it will not do to suddenly declare "it's just a job." (The NFL, though hardly in danger of succumbing to an epidemic of moral integrity, can surely see this distinction, at least as an issue of brand integrity.)
Indeed, if sports is supposed to represent all that is best in men, it should tell us something about more than merely Vick himself that his greatest joy came in bringing out the very worst in dogs - and in us.