One of the best things I read all year came in a magazine I don't read, about a subject I don't follow, by an author I don't agree with on nearly anything. But Matt Taibbi's "The Jock's Guide to Getting Arrested" in the August 2010 Men's Journal was simply a great piece of writing.
I bring it up because Michael Vick is in the news, and Taibbi's rule No. 1 for athletes who get arrested is "Don't Suck."
"Before you go out and start committing crimes," Taibbi writes, "it's important to first make sure you're at least slightly better than the 30 or 40 guys the team's assistant GM could instantly pull off some practice squad to replace you. Otherwise you will become fodder for the team's zero-tolerance discipline policy. Conversely, if you're awesome, the line will be, 'There've been some bumps in the road, but hopefully he's learned from that.'"
Enter Vick, a star quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons until he was caught, tried and convicted for dog fighting and animal cruelty. Vick had been warned to abandon the hobby he loved, but he just couldn't resist brutalizing dogs for sport and drowning the losers.
He went to jail for 21 months, lost a vast amount of money, and was publicly shamed for his misdeeds.
As a dog lover of the first order, I can sympathize with the sentiment behind pundit Tucker Carlson's hyperbole about wanting Vick executed for his crimes. But at the end of the day, nearly two years in jail, personal bankruptcy and the loss of some prime playing years is a reasonable punishment. Though I think lifetime banishments should be more common in professional sports. (Why is betting on, say, basketball more of a reason to ban someone than betting on dogfights? No one drowns the Celtics when they lose.)
But the story leapt from the sports pages to the editorial pages because the president called the team's owner, Jeffrey Lurie, to congratulate him for giving Vick another shot in the NFL.
"So many people who serve time never get a fair second chance." He reportedly told Lurie. "It's never a level playing field for prisoners when they get out of jail."
Obama is surely right that ex-cons face a lot of hurdles in life. But is Vick really a good example?
Michael Vick had it all. He received a $37 million signing bonus when he joined the Falcons. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, another liberal writer I rarely agree with, is exactly right when says: "You would think from the commentary that Vick was some poor kid who got caught swiping something so he could get something to eat. You would think he had on the spur of the moment stolen a car, gone for a joy ride -- and collided with a police car at an intersection."
No, this guy was such a self-involved creep that he couldn't stop himself from running a gladiatorial canine torture mill, even though he knew he was risking everything.
The answer, again: Vick doesn't suck. At football.
But what of the millions of men released from prison who have little education, few skills and a criminal record that would make any reasonable employer think twice, and then twice again, about hiring them?
If our prisons were releasing top-flight software engineers, physicists and biologists, they'd all get second chances too. Ironically, it's the folks who need government licenses -- doctors, stockbrokers, et al. -- who often can't get second chances in their vocations. Obama could actually do something about that.
How to deal with the ex-con population is very hard knot. But neither Michael Vick's example nor the self-flattering preening that has come with it helps cut through it.