From the Dog House to the Big House
Michael Vick, the former star quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons who was convicted of running a dog-fighting ring in 2007, was released from prison in May. Bankrupt and disgraced and currently under house arrest, he is seeking a comeback in the NFL. While he could be back in action as soon as this fall, there are indications that Vick may be suspended much longer from league play. He has been told that he will never appear in a Falcons uniform again—management claims Vick has “betrayed” them.
Vick has been labeled a killer, a savage, a barbarian, and worse. The NFL commissioner has stated that Vick must demonstrate that he is “truly” sorry for his crime before he can be reinstated, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has demanded that he undergo a brain scan first to determine if he is a psychopath. It seems that NFL fans, like the Falcons’ management, also feel betrayed. They wonder: How could Vick risk it all for so little? Worse, how he could endorse the maiming and killing of innocent animals?
As a vegan, I find it hard to empathize with Vick’s heinous actions. But as a sociologist, I ask why it is that Vick serves two years in prison and must now convince the league that he deserves a chance to play football again while Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte Stallworth recently received only a thirty day prison sentence for killing a man while driving his Bentley under the influence of alcohol. Why can’t Americans forgive Vick for this transgression, as we have done with his previous antics and with the many sins of other players, and fixate instead on his highlight reels? What line in the sand has been crossed? Though we could simply indict the individual, the Vick case provides a perfect opportunity to examine how context shapes the ways we think about and treat animals.
The condemnation of Michael Vick highlights our cultural obsession with—and moral elevation of—certain animals designated as companions, especially “man’s best friend.” Also, a racial and economic subplot adds flavor to this story of a sports icon’s tragic downfall. Vick is most abhorred for not subscribing to mainstream America’s valuation of the dog, which is an historically emergent, middle-class, and Anglo-European phenomenon.
Keeping dogs as pets was virtually unheard of before the urban bourgeoisie began to bring them into the home as accessories and status symbols in the Victorian era. Only those with excess income could afford such a luxury. As a result, it became common for the poor to steal pet dogs and sell them back to their owners; and newspapers had a field day mocking the hefty ransoms paid by the well-to-do for the return of their beloved pooches.
Certainly, times have changed. Today, pet ownership has diffused across the socioeconomic spectrum. In addition, seventy-five percent of dog owners “consider their dog like a child or family member;” and pets now comprise a $41 billion economy. Indeed, certain animals have won their way into the domestic sphere in the past two centuries. However, such understandings are still socially contingent and mutable.
Vick grew up in a place where life was cheap. A product of public housing projects located in a crime-ridden Virginia ghetto, Vick’s environment was a place where drug dealing and drive-by shootings were the norm. As Philippe Bourgois and Elijah Anderson point out in their research on American ghetto life, the poor and minorities have historically been subjected to more violence in cities than have middle class whites.
In contexts where many people are deprived of even basic necessities, dog fighting may seem far less remarkable to ghetto residents than the animal practices that are the norm for the Beverly Hills set—where some people kiss their dogs, spoil them with trips to the spa, and provide them with booties and raincoats that could be the envy of human children. Unfortunately, violence against dogs and other animals is often just another aspect of the routine cycles of violence that so many poor and minority Americans must endure in their neighborhoods. Designating animals as pets—and feeding, vaccinating, pampering, spaying, and declawing them—not only are luxuries most people living in poverty can ill afford but might also be actions that some might never conceive of doing. Hard as it is for much of mainstream America to believe, in such settings dogs may not be given honorary familial status.
Another young black sports celebrity from a modest background turns out to be the most astute cultural critic on this issue. Basketball player Stephon Marbury complained, “we don’t say anything about people who shoot deer or shoot other animals.” Marbury raises the specter of a dubious double standard. He need not say who the predominant group of hunters is: it is rural white Americans, the mirror opposite of those usually associated with dog fighting.
Isn’t it blasphemy to say that killing dogs for sport is no worse than killing deer? It depends on whose cultural script you are following. Are those who subscribe to animal slaughter by eating meat on firm moral ground to make judgments against Vick? Marbury’s challenge lies in making middle America confront its own moral contradictions.