June 19, 2009

From the Dog House to the Big House

clip_image002 By Colin Jerolmack

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.

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83534ac5b69e20115712a5585970b

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference From the Dog House to the Big House:

Comments

Following a point made on the sports satire site "The Sports Pickle," I think Marbury's point can and should be extended. An upper-class event like horse racing is extremely violent, both in terms of how the animals are treated during the event and in terms of how participation in the event elevates the possibility that the animal will be killed (e.g. a horse will be shot if it breaks its leg). Yet, the deaths and pain that this activity produces receive very little attention.

Kill and eat a cat and you're a monster. Yet chicken is on sale for $1.29 a pound in the supermarket.

Horses are usually put down if a leg is broken because of the chances of founder/laminitis occurring. A half ton animal on three toes puts a lot of pressure on their remaining structures, you can't keep a horse in a sling or cooped up in a stall 24/7/365 without mental anguish, and no one wants to see a horse suffer through founder and possibly never be pain-free ever again. It's humane treatment, not a racing abuse. If we weren't racing baby horses (Derby horses have just turned 3, horses don't mature into skeletal adulthood until 5 or 6) and breeding for spindly conformation as opposed to the old "iron horse" style of racer, we probably wouldn't see many of the abuses and problems we do now. The backside of a racetrack is decidedly not upper-crust, and often not white.

I think the difference between killing a dog and killing a deer is quite clear. The deer are living in the wild until they are (hopefully) quickly dispatched for eating. The dogs are raised with humans and forced to maul each other in brutal and wholly unnatural ways. Most wild fights would end with the loser walking off to lick his wounds, fighting dogs are pressed into a tiny space and shoved together until the humans are done. You don't see wounds like that on street dogs. It's the added level of Coliseum barbarity that's the problem, completely against pack and social behavior that would be acceptable to either of our species. Which is more problematic to you: a boxer besting another boxer in the championship ring, or a man cornering another man and beating on him until his friends stop cheering, no matter how many times the cornered man is bested? I hope your veggie side hasn't addled your brains so badly you can't see the difference. Cesar Milan grew up where life is cheap too. Wonder what he found that Michael Vick didn't?

Re:Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor racism allegations!

Could Senator Patrick Leahy and others be a bigot, racist, and supremacist?

About Senator Leahy: JUNE 9, 1987 WALL STREET JOURNAL, section: JUSTICES DELAYED

Third paragraph reads: The American Bar Association twice has rated Judge Sentelle "Well qualified", but that did not prevent Vermont’s Senator Patrick Leahy from announcing that Judge Sentelle's membership in the Masons could disqualify him. According to Senator Leahy's information, Masons have to be "male, white and believe in a supreme being."

Notice; you have to be a man he said. Not even women, it rejects all women.
Has this ideology changed since then? Can Americans get the truth from Senator Patrick Leahy these days?

I'm taking a sociology class right now and i'm studying social structure and roles. After reading your article, i think that people forget how mike vick grew up and what type of lifestyle he was exposed to. They don't look at him as a man who struggled to change his lifestyle after he made it in the nfl, they look at him as a star athlete and role model. When he was charged with dogfighting, it was a huge deal because the role and obligations that people expected from him were destroyed. If any other random man was caught dogfighting, no one would care. But because more was expected from mike vick, everyone cared.

I think the last part about killing deer versus killing dogs brings up a good point about the way people think about animals. For instance PETA was all over Vick about the dogs but what organizations are there for the deer? On the other hand some people look at deer as a source of food and dogs are like family members. But who says that dogs are more important than deer? The idea of deer as a source of food comes from ancient history and is not questioned. Dogs for the most part are seen as "mans best friend," but that is not true for everyone. Some people don't understand why a person can treat one animal better than another. Although Vick may have crossed the line with breeding and forcing the dogs to fight, i don't believe any animal should be seen as better or more important than another.

After reading your article I agree with you on how people probably do not look back on how Vick was raised and the violence he probably saw during his childhood. However I do believe what he did was wrong , I don't believe he should be taken away from the NFL forever like they said At the beinging when they first found out about what he was doing. I am a dog lover myself .However to me it is alot worse to be caught doing illegal drugs and drinking and driving which you hear about all the time , then getting caught with dog fighting. What Vick did was wrong but now that he has done his time I feel he should be allowed back into the NFL.

he has done his part, he deserves a chance and be back on nfl..

I THINK THE WHOLE ISSUE ABOUT VICK IS STUPID. I PERSONALLY HATE ALL ANIMALS, AND COULD CARE LESS IF HE MAKES THEM FIGHT OR NOT. PETA NEEDS TO GET A LIFE AND STOP WORRYING ABOUT ANIMALS. LIKE OTHERS SAID WHAT ABOUT OTHER ANIMALS PEOPLE KILL? IF THAT IS THE CASE ALL HUNTERS SHOULD BE ARRESTED. THERE ARE TOO MANY STARVING PEOPLE, VICTIMS OF RAPE, ABUSE, AND OTHER STUFF, TO BE WORRIED ABOUT SOMEONE MAKING DOGS FIGHT. WILD ANIMALS FIGHT ALL THE TIME, IS PETA GOING TO GET BETWEEN TWO LIONS AND STOP THEM FROM KILLING EACH OTHER? IT IS THE CIRCLE OF LIFE, ANIMALS DIE. IT'S WAY MORE ANIMALS THAN HUMANS, PEOPLE SHOULD WORRY ABOUT ANIMALS TRYING TO KILL THEM, INSTEAD OF A DUMB DOG FIGHT.

This article forces the reader to recognize all the empathetic blind spots that often happens to those with a strong belief in something. I have once again been shown that dichotomous thinking is always dangerously lurking in the human psyche and if not recognized, one can easily miss the big picture

Before studying sociology I wouldn't have given much thought to whether dog fighting was right or wrong. Of course it is wrong because I have always loved dogs and thought of them as friends. How could anyone treat a dog with anything less than pure love? It is only when you realize that what is considered right and wrong in the treatment of animals is not always so black and white that your "beginners mind" starts to work.

Examining the treatment of pets from a historical timeline was also fascinating to me. I can only imagine that many cultures of the past would look at how we pamper are pets today as downright strange. It is also interesting to imagine how pets might be treated a hundred years from now. Will seeing a mother pushing a stroller of puppies be just as common of a sight as a mother and her human babies today? The ever changing culture of animal treatment in general would suggest that such a seemingly ridiculous sight might not be so ridiculous in 100 years.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for everydaysociologyblog.com please .

Norton Sociology Books

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Real World

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

« Measuring Abortion Beliefs | Main | The Prevalence of Social Norms »