Michael Vick – Broken Promise

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The firestorm swirling around NFL quarterback Michael Vick, the newest poster boy for bad superstar behavior, raises bigger issues than just horrific animal cruelty. The bigger issue has nothing to do with whether he should be forgiven now that he has pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges for financing a dog fighting enterprise, or whether he will be allowed back into the NFL after he’s served his sentence. Those are minor diversions from a much larger and far more significant issue.

How does a young man with obvious athletic gifts and off-field marketing appeal break his promise to become just another black male with a record? The story of either having it all or being on the verge of having it all is all too familiar. The fall from grace of former OSU standout Maurice Clarett is just one of many stories of what might have been.

I remember when black athletes were men of talent and pride. Men who possessed a social conscience like Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, and Bill Russell. With their celebrity, they also carried a sense of responsibility to portray themselves with a sense of purpose. Even super-cool rebels like Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabar stood for something more meaningful than a multimillion-dollar shoe deal.

But somewhere between Jesse Owens and Michael Vick, things got way off track. Street cred became more important than dignity leading to the wacky notion that the only way to appeal to the sneaker-buying public was to live the thug life popularized by gangster rappers.

We have allowed these attitudes to fester and grow like a cancer. The problem is the hijacking of Black culture by a hip-hop generation that is disconnected from its history, and the legacy of those who played a part in bringing them to its present.

Young black men from Atlanta to Columbus’ near east side walk a dangerous tightrope. The choice of being a square or a thug faces them everyday. I see the struggle in my own son’s life. He’s made the choice to be a part-time college student, to a work full-time job that doesn’t pay well, and to not fall prey to the negative influences he could have easily gotten sucked into. He can intellectually and morally draw the line between listening to gangster rap and wanting to live a gangster lifestyle.

Unfortunately, there are far too many young black men who let those lines blur, either because they choose to like Vick, or because lack of opportunity or stupidity pushes them way over the line.

That’s what so sad about Vick, Clarett, and others who rise to the top by using their God-given talent to thrill us on game day. When trouble knocks at their door, they can become the headline for all young black men in the eyes of our larger society. They make it easier for the media and our collective psyche to hold on to images of black men as out of control thugs who can not only jeopardize our lives, but even the lives of our beloved dogs.

The promise for all our children’s future is not in the NFL or NBA. It lies in knowing the difference between being selfishly indulgent or socially responsible. NBA great Charles Barkley was right when he said that we should not make athletes role models—that positive role models from young black kids should come from home, not from outsiders like Michael Vick.